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The Importance of Being Earnest | Darlinghurst Theatre Company
Written by Nicholas Routley   
Monday, 01 November 2010 11:49

The Importance of Being Earnest | Darlinghurst Theatre CompanyWhen the author of the play I am reviewing has said things like “Journalism justifies its existence by the great Darwinian principle of survival of the vulgarest” I approach the task with more than usual trepidation. But I am given heart, having spent so much of my life in universities, by a remark of Algernon’s in the play I saw last night, to the effect that the newspapers should be written by people from universities because they don’t know anything. This from Oscar Wilde, who also amplified the saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing by pointing out that too much of it could be fatal.

The performance of this play by the Darlinghurst Theatre Company at their own venue, which is so intimate that it is smaller than some of the rooms in which one could imagine the play being set, stuck very faithfully to its famous and outrageous text. Nicholas Papademetriou, who directed the play, decided to move the action from the 1890s to the 1930s, in order, as he explains in the program, to allow the sensuality of the play to develop more freely in the (slightly) more liberal atmosphere of the 1930s. For myself, I feel (still under Wilde’s influence as I find myself this morning) that nothing emphasises sensuality like repression, and so I received the transposition of era as a certain minor dilution of what it was supposed to enhance. Otherwise it was an evening in the theatre with very little of the theatrical to distract from the sparkling text.

Linda Cropper, as a younger than usual Lady Bracknell, gave the part iron and occasionally frightening firmness - “Prism!” she commands to the unfortunate governess and points to the floor at her own feet, as you might to a dog you’d summoned. Without a strong Bracknell the play becomes the kind of clichéd comedy of manners affectionately parodied by Stoppard in Travesties in which the two women also called Cecily and Gwendolen, have a scene together in the style of a musical. In this production Bracknell is almost as dominating as the Kostelnicka in Janacek’s opera Jenufa. Cropper’s comic timing was brilliant, as was Douglas Hansell’s as Algernon; they gave the impression, so vital in comedy, that everthing they said was entirely spontaneous. I could not say quite the same for Martin Harper, whose rendering of Jack, alias Earnest, was, well, a little too earnest. It felt as if he had worked his way into the character of Jack and found someone to whom the absurdities of life were ultimately frustrating, whereas my impression of Wilde is that life’s absurdities were all that rescued him from boredom. The exchange which opens the play set the tone for this. Algernon says with lighthearted bonhomie “What brings you here?”, and Jack’s famous response (“Pleasure, Algernon, what else should bring a man anywhere?”) came just a little too matter-of-factly for maximum effect (but then there are so many such exchanges in the play that I suppose you can’t milk all of them). Both Gwendolen (Chantelle Jamison) and Cecily (Adele Querol) were appropriately delightful caricatures of young women seeking adventure but trying not to appear to.

But, as Mrs Abraham Lincoln was famously not asked, how did I enjoy the play? At the climax, when Jack says that he finds himself in the very difficult and entirely unfamiliar position of having to tell the truth, I couldn’t suppress the feeling that the plot had been manipulated by Wilde expressly so as to lead to that remark, rather than that the remark arose as an inevitable consequence of the action. And a play that draws attention again and again to the brilliance of its text cannot allow itself to enter what Artaud would have regarded as the true domain of theatre at all. In spite of that, the performance was always entertaining and often glitteringly so. And I was left feeling that, despite the deliberate absurdity of so many of Wilde’s witticisms, surprisingly many of them rang true with me, the truth being “rarely pure and never simple”. After all, as Wilde said elsewhere, “I love acting. It is so much more real than life”.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents
The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde

Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre Company | 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Dates: 13 October – 7 November, 2010
Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm
Tickets: Adult $37 / Concession $32 / Preview: $27 / Senior $30 / Groups 10+ $30
Bookings: | (02) 8356 9987

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