'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde

Shaw Festival

Michael Cooper

Dave Rabjohn

The Shaw Festival is now running a delightful production of Oscar Wilde’s eminent play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ This period piece is subtly directed by Shaw’s artistic director Tim Carroll and highlights the delicious banter and cynical wit of these characters who exude a complete absence of moral commitment. Completely true to the traditional text, some surprises come from a unique set design and clever scene introductions that penetrate the social stratification.

Indeed a comedy of manners, it features preposterous situations and comic confusions of identity. John Worthing (Ernest) has been raised as an orphan in the higher levels of society. In the flat of his friend Algernon, played boldly by Peter Fernandes, they discuss the various merits of love, marriage and proposing. Their dialogue is filled with the aforementioned cynicism. The core of their conversation is the admittance of getting away from the city and using fake identities to roam for pleasure. Enter Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell who uses her overbearing personality to intimidate the young men. Kate Hennig plays the imperious autocrat with overweening delight.

Lady Bracknell refuses Worthing’s connection with her niece, but Ernest and Gwendolen commit to each other secretly. Moving to the country Algernon arrives and proposes to Cecily (Worthing’s niece) and then they are joined by “Ernest” and Gwendolyn and mayhem ensues as identities are mixed or lost. Ancient discoveries are made that comically return all characters happily to their trivial lives.

Martin Happer, as Ernest, is efficiently cool and emotionless – physical humour was amusing as he flops with fake dread on a couch or spends too much time on his knees addressing various characters. Julia Course plays Gwendolen with great wry humour and excellent timing. Gabriella Sundar Singh, as Cecily, feeds energy into Act 2 with her saucy wit – big eyes and bouncy spirit poorly hiding her manipulative calculations. The unathletic Algernon (Peter Fernandes) is hilarious as he attempts to leap over a shrub and then abandons the attempt. The death of Banbury speech was a brilliant highlight.

Gillian Gallow’s set design was traditionally elegant, but some twists were a signatory. A series of deepening prosceniums drew the audience eyes into almost a bandbox that moved forward in act one. This resulted in an intimacy with the opening dialogue. Pursuant scenes used various sized prosceniums to regulate outdoor venues or larger ornate rooms. The final library scene is cleverly fitted with a flat displaying a large bookcase, but no book titles exist. This subtly parallels the thin veneer of upper-crust society – all show, no substance.

The manor house garden was largely filled with shrubbery, so finely tuned that it was almost cartoonish – again reflecting the pretensions of Wilde’s characters. Delighting the audience were comic entrances and exits through the silly labyrinth.

Another clever surprise was a momentary treat that opened each of the three acts. Played by the servants, a small distinctive playlet or musical whimsy introduced moments in each scene. One could almost perceive, under the guise of droll professionalism, their disgust and wink-wink observations of the lampooned upper class.

This production clearly displays the pretentious characters who do not change from beginning to end. Wilde skewers Victorian society unabashedly. This play seems to be governed by Wilde’s paradoxical aphorism – “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”

Fun fact: When the SARS outbreak hit Ontario in 2003, then director of the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell, decided to take out pandemic insurance – one of the very few companies to do so. Because of that instinct, virtually all Shaw employees continued to work and be paid throughout the COVID crisis. Well done, Ms. Maxwell!

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde
Performers: Julia Course, Peter Fernandes, Martin Happer, Kate Hennig, Gabriella Sundar Singh, Neil Barclay, Patty Jamieson, Andre Morin, Ric Reid, Graeme Sommerville, Jaqueline Thair

Director: Tim Carroll
Set Design: Gillian Gallow
Costumes: Christina Poddubiuk
Music and sound: James Smith
Production runs through October 9, 2022.
Tickets at: shawfest.com

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