The Importance of Being Earnest

Powerhouse Theatre (Ridiculusmus)


Professional production

Never mind lavender and lace – try damask and chintz, but use them as panelling on 1930s wardrobes and sideboard, as folding screens depicting a rose garden, as part of the glorious eclectic chaos that makes up the bachelor pad of Jack/Ernest Worthing.

Add an ironing board and a spray pack of Windex, a pop-up toaster, and an intricate patterning of imitation Persian carpets, and you have a gorgeous set for which Oscar Wilde, if he were living today, would surely applaud designer Zoë Atkinson.

I like to think that he’d also love the glorious subversion of his masterpiece, the Importance of Being Earnest , as much as last Saturday’s audience did, for Wilde’s meticulously structured play is the perfect vehicle for the anarchic talents of Jon Haynes and David Haynes, who together portray all seven characters.

This isn’t as easy as it might seem, for Wilde very rarely has only two characters on stage together, and the hilarity begins when Woods becomes first the manservant Lane, who announces the arrival of, and then becomes, Algy’s friend Jack, by the simple expedient of going to a cupboard, changing jackets and adding a bad wig.

But then Lady Bracknell arrives, with daughter Gwendolen in tow, and the costume-swapping becomes more and more frenetic, with one character standing lemon-lipped on stage while the other goes off and reappears, after what seems like an interminable wait, in yet another guise.

Because they do all this deadpan, almost like ten-year-old boys putting on a performance for the adults, it becomes even funnier, but after an hour you begin to wonder whether this might be enough, and that the joke has gone on long enough.

Change the scene to Jack’s country estate, where his ward Cecily Cardew lives under the guidance of Miss Prism, with occasional visits from the love-lorn Canon Chasuble, and not just the plot, but the costume changes thicken. At one stage there are five characters on stage at once, and the actors drop all pretence at staying strictly in character, so we get, for example, two live actors, two glove puppets and a marble statue wearing the appropriate hat, struggling with hats, coat stands and frilly skirts under chasubles, for one of the most hysterically funny sequences I’ve seen on stage for a long time.

I think this is a work of genius, because although everything that can go wrong does so, we’re never sure how much is deliberate, and how much is due to the concept getting out of hand. This is the world premiere, after all, of a production that’s going straight to the Barbican in London after its Brisbane season, soit could be seen as a kind of off-Broadway try-out, in front of an audience who can be relied on to be enthusiastic and appreciative.

And so they are, and rightly so, for I wasn’t the only one guffawing and rolling around in my seat, with tears of laughter streaming down my face. Even for those of us who know and love the play (and Edith Evans), it was a great relief to be spared the notorious Handbag ? sequence, and for the many Wilde virgins in the audience, the jokes were new and fresh, proving that the best humour can retain its vitality even after a century of interpretation and reinterpretation. .

We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Powerhouse director, Andrew Ross, for collaborating with Barbican London in bringing this insane piece of ingenuity to life. And the fact that the house was packed, as it was for the preview the night before, shows that he’s resonating with Brisbane audiences. There was a huge range of people there, from the very young to some respectable wrinklies, as well as people you don’t see in the foyers of the more mainstream theatre companies, that gives me new heart about the future of live theatre in this country.

The Brisbane Powerhouse – the name itself is rich with symbolism, but all I ask is that you remember how lucky we are to have it.

Directed by Jude Kelly

Playing until Saturday 9 April at 7.30pm. Matinee Wednesday 6 April at 2pm

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 1st April 2005)