A Mockery of Fake Ideals

The International Theatre Presents a Memorable Version Of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”

On The Town | Mariam Shalikashvili, Dardis McNamee | March 2008

Photos: Rolf Bock

"My ideal," says Gwendolen (Roxanne Carless) to her lover, "has always been to love someone of the name of Earnest!" Which would have been fine if it weren’t for the fact that Earnest was really Jack - or was it the other way around?

In a mockery of Victorian fake ideals that sparkles undiminished, English playwright Oscar Wilde takes on manners, marriage and the whole pomposity of social convention in The Importance of Being Earnest, which remains after more than a century one of the most beloved plays of the English speaking world. Irreverent and tirelessly elegant, this is a play where conversation itself is an art, a play that loves a liar and fawns on the fraud, yet never completely abandons the possibility of identifying something at least vaguely like love, as long as it is carried off with style.

In the auditorium of the International Theatre, the excitement was tangible, tinged with a vague worry as to whether the set would live up to the imagination of Wilde, the ultimate aesthete. Designer Don Fenner chose a lush cream for the walls and light blue curtains for Algernon Moncrief’s luxurious living room, the antique mantel crowned with a gilt-edged mirror, and anchored by a chic black chaise longue.

The dialogues throughout the play are multi-layered, charged with thought-provoking connotations. The double identity of Jack and Algernon is an allegory for the two-faces of Victorian society which preached dedication to high virtues and in practice embraced triviality.

Jack and Algernon are prototypes of upper class, absorbed by self-gratification, idleness, and admiration of form over substance.  Marriage is satirized as a cold-eyed business arrangement masquerading as romance; flirtation is a game in a negotiation between sentiment and practicality.

The playful sparring of these two friends is the core relationship of the play. The stage looked perfect; all was set for one’s attention to be completely absorbed by the performances of the actors. The opening dialogue between Algernon (Eric Lomas) and Jack Worthing (Ben Maddox) flowed effortlessly, the intonations and mimicry close to what one imagines when reading the play.

This scene is widely considered one of the most vivid and artistically complicated to perform and was, on this occasion, both dynamic and convincing: Jack is attempting to retrieve his cigarette case at the expense of deceit. Algernon exposes the bluff and induces his friend to confess that he had invented a younger brother Earnest to serve as an excuse for visiting the city. Algernon in return reveals the existence of his imaginary friend Bunbury, who is the reason for Algernon’s escapes to the country to avoid tiresome social obligations. Both choreographed and yet somehow spontaneous, the actors gave one another room to improvise in voice and gesture.

The joy of this play, though, is in the spirit of Wilde himself, a man who looked at all the conflicting motivations and masquerades of the human comedy with enormous affection. He had no interest in virtue, but in life at its most vivid, in sensuality and aesthetics.

"Bunbury-ing" is used as a code word for having an imaginary, and thus secret, other life, which allows an essential room to maneuver. This was a recurring theme for Wilde, and while the complexity of his own life – as a married man with a family, who was also a far more open homosexual than the times allowed – may have heightened his understanding, it seems clear that he intended this insight to be universal, acknowledging and accepting the conflicting needs of the many layered creatures we call human beings.

Among many memorable scenes was the sequence where Algernon meets Cecily. He presents himself – in his preposterous motoring gear of a belted trench coat, cap and goggles over riding jodhpurs and boots – as Worthing’s brother "Earnest" to Cecily (Amanda Wilkins), the innocent young ward of Jack Worthing, whom designers Gloria Sattel and Laura Mitchell clothed in a simple white dress, slippers and her hair tied with a blue ribbon. When Algie dares to propose to newly met Cecily he is stunned to learn that they have already been engaged for the last three months.

She is immediately intrigued by the existence of this brother whom Miss Prism (Laura Mitchell) refers to as "wicked," and thus can only be fascinating.

Laura Mitchell’s portrayal of the straight-laced governess is arched and comic, rapping the proverbial knuckles of her protégée while flirting with the minister behind a very thin veil of Victorian etiquette. Both pedantic and coy, she earned consistent laughs, while Rev. Chasuble (Kevin Brock) managed a fine balance between chivalry and the pompous fussiness of a country pastor.

The fakery is embodied in Lady Bracknell (Marilyn Close) and her daughter Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell is the dragon dowager – far too mild in this production – who places lineage and net worth far above any thing so foolish as affection in forming a successful marriage. Gwendolen also has an agenda, and is ready to give consent only if the form of the proposal is correct.

Admittedly, the role of Lady Bracknell is daunting, with legendary performances on film like that of the unforgettable Edith Evans; still Close’s  interpretation, more playful than tyrannical and wonderful to look at, was thoroughly adequate.

The culmination of the performance is the last scene; where the plot reaches the peak of absurdity. All the secrets of the past are discovered and all the misunderstandings clarified as the leading character of the play suddenly realizes "the vital importance of being Earnest."


The Importance of Being Earnest

International Theatre

9., Porzellangasse 8

(01) 319 62 72


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