The Importance of Being Earnest. By Oscar Wilde. Directed by Judi Crane. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. Until March 7. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au.
Director Judi Crane's faithful Canberra Rep production of Oscar Wilde's scintillating comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, attests to the play's enduring popularity. Wilde's tangled tale of love and deception continues to provide rich fare for theatre students and countless productions by amateur and professional theatre companies.
One hundred and twenty years after its triumphant West End premiere, Wilde's quicksilver wit, biting satire and ingenious plot about two upper-class men seeking to marry two upper-class young women with a penchant for the name Ernest still fills the theatre with laughter. Those unfamiliar with this classic comedy might do well to read a synopsis before going to the play. Suffice to say that confused identities, class struggles and the bumpy course of unsmooth true love find true happiness in the end.
Crane has opted for a traditional, conventional approach. Michael Sparks' set design is unobtrusive in its simple elegance with no hint of ostentation. Two cherubs grace the false proscenium on either side of a plush red curtain with yellow frills behind a ground row of footlights, and songs of the period greet the audience as they enter the theatre. Heather Spong's costumes set the period and director and cast and crew allow Wilde's rapier wit to work its magic upon the audience.
Crane's cast do the playwright justice. There are fine performances, most notably from more experienced performers Jordan Best as Miss Prism, tutor to John Worthing's ward Cecily Cardew, and Karen Vickery as the imposing Lady Bracknell. Vickery avoids the bombastic pomposity of stereotypical interpretations and offers a more scrutinising and deliberately manipulative doyenne of high society. It is refreshing to see promising newcomers to the Rep stage. John Brennan's John aka Ernest Worthing gradually warms to his role that is truly Ernest by name and earnest by nature. In proper contrast to Brennan's stiff Worthing, Miles Thompson shows assured potential as his playful and mercurial friend, Algernon Moncrieff.
Lady Bracknell's daughter, Gwendolen, is convincingly played with a measured sense of propriety and social conformity by Kayleigh Brewster. It seems a disservice to her performance, however, to dull her presence in the final scene by placing her upstage in a somewhat drab costume for a woman of her station. Jessica Symond's Cecily is delightfully fresh and forthright, lending a charming air of beguilement to her performance.
Canberra Repertory's Earnest offers no exciting new interpretations. Fortunately, it avoids casting a male actor in drag as Lady Bracknell as recent professional productions have done. Nor does it attempt to create a radical contemporary vision for Wilde's Victorian comedy. Rather, it remains true to text and true to period and in this respect the production is pure and simple. The audience erupt with laughter, not only because of Wilde's cynical swipe at class, but also because of his play's witty expose of human foible. That is the universal truth of The Importance of Being Earnest and the simple truth of Canberra Rep's enjoyable production.