The Importance of Being Earnest. By Oscar Wilde. Directed by Judi Crane. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3, February 20-March 7. Tickets $40/$35. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au or 62571950.
Don't expect a geriatric or gender-bending Lady Bracknell from Rep's production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The production will open 125 years and six days after the Oscar Wilde comedy premiered on February 14, 1895. in London. Director Judi Crane says her production has taken much of its inspiration from the original.
"The costume design by Heather Spong was inspired by period costumes and Helen Drum is doing the millinery - there are beautiful hats.
"We're using a very traditional but very beautiful stage design with a curtain, backdrop and footlights."
She says The Importance of Being Earnest is "as witty and fresh today as the day it was written" and praises Wilde as both a master wordsmith and a master dramatist.
"He invented himself as a celebrity - he was the Kim Kardashian of his time."
In the play, London gentleman Algernon (played by Miles Thompson) discovers that his friend "Ernest" (John Brennan) is in fact Jack Worthing, who lives in the country with his young ward Cecily (Jessica Symonds) and uses the name "Ernest" when he comes to London for pleasure-seeking. Algy has a cousin, Gwendolen (Kayleigh Brewster) whom Jack wants to marry and has a secret of his own: he pretends to have an invalid friend named Bunbury living in the country whom he can "visit" as an excuse to avoid wearisome social obligations.
Crane says, "We've treated the thing like a Victorian rom-com, with beautiful young lovers."
But while Crane has an eye on the traditional - she doesn't, for example, hold with gimmicks like casting a man as Lady Bracknell, ("I don't see the point of it ... I can't justify it in my mind") as some recent productions have done with actors like Geoffrey Rush and David Suchet - she hasn't felt herself hidebound.
And, she says, despite the impact of Lady Bracknell, it's not her play: she appears relatively briefly and the focus is really on the four young people.
She's cast some of the other roles younger than they're sometimes portrayed. Karen Vickery is a middle-aged Lady Bracknell, a believable mother of a young woman rather than pushing 70 as Dame Edith Evans was by the time of the 1952 film version that immortalised her influential stage interpretation of the role. And Jordan Best as the governess Miss Prism (Jordan Best) - and Mark Bunnett as the clergyman Chasuble (Mark Bunnett) are similarly a bit less long in the tooth than their cinematic counterparts Margaret Rutherford - who'd also become famous in the role years earlier - and Milles Malleson.
The more recent bout of prominent age-appropriate casting began in Britain in the 1980s, she thinks, when Judi Dench played Lady Bracknell. Crane played the role herself in Free Rain Theatre Company's 2010 production and calls it "Every middle-aged actress's dream."
Crane is using the shorter, three-act version of the play. She has decided not to use the original four-act version which includes additional material concerning a lawyer chasing "Ernest" for debt.
"It's too long."
But although she's welcomed the opportunity to present her vision of the play, she hasn't always had her own way. She had thought of using her English spring spaniel in the play.
"But my stage manager forbade it - no dogs!"
It might be for the best, though.
"She is very beautiful - she would steal the scene completely."