Friday, 18 November 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest, Nov 17, 2011 ***1/2

The Importance of Being Earnest 
By Oscar Wilde, Melbourne Theatre Company
MTC Sumner Theatre, November 17 to January 14, 2012
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on November 17, 2011
Stars: *** 1/2
Published in Herald Sun on Nov 21, 2011

 Emily Barclay, Geoffrey Rush, Patrick Bramall in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Jeff Busby
Oscar Wilde is considered one of Britain's great, comic playwrights, and his renowned comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, is like two hours of Victorian stand-up comedy –witticisms come thick and fast with little physical action.

In this production, Simon Phillips’ swansong for MTC, Geoffrey Rush is uncannily convincing playing the doughty, elderly dowager, Lady Bracknell, with truthfulness, impeccable comic delivery and a supercilious tone – all while wearing an impressive, aristocratic gown. But, I can't help craving just a little more parody of the character.

‘In matters of grave importance style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,’ quips Gwendolen and Wilde’s plays are fine examples of style over content with their farcical plots, witty banter and two-dimensional characters.

Listening to relentlessly witty repartee can be tiring and this production often flags. On opening night, the actors seemed  a little uncomfortable with the style, the dynamic range felt limited and the rhythm and pace unbalanced, but these issues may improve with more shows.

Patrick Brammall and Toby Schmitz are an effective comic, double act as the two young toffs who assume different identities in town and country and awkwardly both end up called Earnest. Schmitz’s clumsy, blustering, clownish John Worthing is counter-balanced by Brammall’s egotistical, confident, entitled snob, Algernon.

Christie Whelan is elegantly snobbish as Gwendolen, finding subtle, physical comedy despite her restrictive, albeit gorgeous gowns. Emily Barclay is pert and funny as Cecily, Worthing’s hopelessly romantic, opinionated young ward.

Bob Hornery delights in hamming up the two butlers– the smug, efficient Lane and doddering, old Merriman – and steals the stage during scene changes.

Jane Menelaus and Tony Taylor play the unrequited, middle-aged love match, with Menelaus suitably prim, dowdy and spinsterly as Miss Prism, while Taylor’s addled and socially awkward Canon Chasuble stops short of the character’s requisite, droning dullness.

A highlight is the late Tony Tripp’s outsized, picture book design of Aubrey Beardsley drawings (realised for stage by Richard Roberts).

Wilde’s play is a wicked, social satire on the hypocrisy of Victorian society, its values and class system but perhaps its style craves some adapting to the 21st century theatrical climate.

By Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

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