Piano music tinkles. Old film reels of Victorian London are projected against propped-up canvases. A bookcase, a chaise-longue and a table laid for afternoon tea lie in wait. The stage was set – ready for Mermaids’ production of one of the most classic of the classic plays to be endowed with the honour of being a classic: Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Fresh off their production of an actual classic last semester (Antigone, if you’re interested), directing duo Lorna Govan and Greta Kelly courageously took on the king of word-play and innuendo. This time choosing to keep the action in the Victorian England it was written for, they successfully pulled off telling a story that hangs on dramatic irony, paradoxes and annoyingly clever observations. Each word counts; each sentence contains a joke somewhere; and each performer must pull their weight to make these jokes land. Badly placed emphasis or unclear delivery in a Wildean play could quite easily make the carefully constructed building of dialogue come crashing down.
I must doff my figurative hat, then, to the actors who navigated these words so well. I don’t envy them having to learn them – at least Shakespearean verse has a rhythm to lean on. Despite this challenge, everyone had a firm grasp of their character, and, apart from a small number of expected sticky moments, delivered thoroughly rehearsed and well-crafted performances.
As young, eligible (-ish) bachelors Jack and Algernon respectively, Alex Wood and Rory Gill bounced off each other throughout the production. Their physical comedy and facial expressions stopped their performances turning into a display of how good their memory is – sometimes actors do forget that that’s not what acting is – even in moments where they were in the background and not delivering dialogue (another thing actors occasionally forget to do). Wood took Jack from being a potentially mildly irritating rich kid to a lovesick, impertinent but oddly endearing rich kid, whilst Gill’s “Algie” always had an air of childish mischievous, capturing the sense of fun that gives the play life.
Their lovers, Gwendolyn and Cecily, appeared in due course in the forms of Ellie Hope and Flora Smith. As the former, Hope was haughty, inscrutable and fickle, sweeping about in stylish gowns as poor Jack pined after her. In contrast to this capable and even cunning woman, Smith’s Cecily appeared harmless, inexperienced and frivolous. Yet, she was equally observant and self-assured, and these two seemingly opposite women were believable as friends as they stalked off arm in arm after a tiff with their hapless lovers. Weirdly, the characters all nearly had better platonic chemistry with their friend than they did romantically with their lover, and I’m also sort of ok with that. It’s not really a love story, after all.
The most sweeping romance was in fact between the Reverend Chasuble and Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. Isobel Sinclair was the stand-out comedic performance of the night, despite playing a supporting character. She found humour in every moment, and Timo Marchant’s bashful minister provided a wonderful foil with many funny moments of his own.
Alec Csukai appeared in drag as formidable Aunt Augusta, who rather reminded me of Aunt Adelaide in “Nanny McPhee” (in a good way). A stiff-upper-lip approach suited the character well and made her occasional outbursts hilarious, but also meant a few missed opportunities elsewhere (but that’s more of a shame than an issue). A special mention also to Wilf Wheatley who deftly played not one but two butlers, distinguished from each other by a stick-on moustache. I know it was stick-on because it had to be torn off about 30 seconds after Wheatley walked onstage, in a lovely testament to the unpredictability of theatre.
Complemented by elegant costumes and a naturalistic set design which placed the interior of the house onstage and the garden in front of the stage, the simple approach, effective physical comedy and the performers’ attention to detail allowed the wit of the script to shine. This production did the play justice, which must surely mean something coming from this Wilde fan.