The Importance of Being Earnest | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Tony Taylor, Toby Schmitz and Jane Menelaus. Cover – Toby Schmitz, Patrick Brammall and Geoffrey Rush. Photo – Jeff Busby

The long-awaited MTC production of The Importance of Being Earnest (Simon Phillips final production as Artistic Director of the company) opened last night in a buzz of expectation, as Geoffrey Rush assembled the persona of Lady Bracknell backstage.

Even with the certainty this would be a booked-out run, the Oscar Wilde play was scheduled for the mid-sized Sumner theatre, where every lifted eyebrow or nervous tic was visible to all. We arrived to the vision of a circular stage, gleaming white, with a frail table and two chairs centre stage. To maintain the element of surprise, the rest of the set cannot be fully revealed, but it drew a gasp of wonder and a round of applause. The concept, originated by Tony Tripp and realised by Richard Roberts, was inspired by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, who was a fellow of Wilde’s in the Aesthetic movement and illustrator of his play Salomé. The crisp black and white theme acted as a foil for the colourful characters who were about to step into the bright and unforgiving light.

First came the butler, Lane, played by Bob Hornery, who took the role of both butlers, as is the convention. The veteran actor milked the limelight to create two wildly different characters, or rather caricatures, each hilarious. His physical comedy threatened to upstage the other actors, but no one cared. Hingeing on his performance, each act was punctuated by delightful tableaux vivants.

Next came Algernon (Patrick Brammall), the character that most closely echoes Wilde’s fin de siècle manner and his mordant wit. Unfortunately, the familiar lines were rattled off without any sense that the character was creating these gems on the spot. There was no finessing of vocal dynamics to bring the text to life. And strangely, Algy was not the dandy one expects. His hair was natural, his face wholesome and his clothes no more refined than those of his friend Earnest (Toby Schmitz). Schmitz was far more convincing: dapper, with a mobile face and a range of vocal registers that rose at times to a finely suppressed hysteria. Later, he met the challenge of engaging with Lady Bracknell, giving his character the panache to gain his final victory over the monstrous dame.

Rush’s first entrance as Lady Bracknell, resplendent in red and black, lifted the performance to a new level. Rush’s resonant voice and his height – augmented by an upswept coiffure and extravagant hat whose feathers quivered tremulously in moments of high tension – gave Lady B an even more dominating presence than usual. But most striking of all was his command of the text. Long, complex sentences were delivered in one breath, with his voice perfectly modulated to bring out the rhythm, sense and underlying venom of each phrase. There was no new interpretation of this character – the dialogue dictates the character in Wilde’s play – but Rush knew how to weigh every ounce of comedy with his vocal technique.

Christie Whelan was an interesting choice for Gwendolen. Acclaimed for her performances in musical theatre, Whelan had a lyrical quality to her dialogue, and enunciated the lines in a brittle soprano voice, with just the right edge to make us believe she was indeed the daughter and sparring partner of her mother, Lady Bracknell. Her costume was on a par with her mother’s, with the same monumental puffed sleeves, cinched waist and soaring hat – and similarly vibrating feathers – but in cooler colours, notably green for envy. Emily Barclay’s Cecily was a lovely contrast, soft and natural, a subtle but not unworthy opponent in the battle between the two girls for the affections of the (almost) fictitious Earnest.

Miss Prism (Jane Menelaus) and The Reverend Chasuble (Tony Taylor) were admirable, if a little predictable, as the two elderly sweethearts. The whole cast relaxed and became more expansive and entertaining as the play drew to its absurd and well-worn close, with exaggerated sound effects, stage business and choreographed movements.

This production makes it clear that the brilliance of Wilde’s play rests with the dialogue, and that close attention to the text and the way it is spoken is the key to a successful performance. It seems it takes actors with the experience of Rush and Hornery to do full justice to the play. Rush clearly understands what is at stake and has added, not a new Lady Bracknell, but a full-blown one, true to the character Wilde lovingly wrote into theatrical history.

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

Simon Phillips

Venue: The MTC Theatre, Sumner
Dates: 12 November 2011 to 14 January 2012
Times: Mon-Tues 6.30pm; Wed 1pm, 8pm; Thurs-Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm, 8.30pm
Duration: 2 hours 30 mins
Bookings: or MTC box office 03 8688 0888

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