‘We live in an age of surfaces.’ Lady Bracknell’s truer-than-she-knows aphorism comes late in Oscar Wilde’s century-old ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ but it is the key both to the play’s lasting satirical power and its necessarily frothy presentation. In this production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, the surfaces, those social and aesthetic façades demanded of Victorian propriety, have more lustre than ever.
The exuberance begins with designer Ailsa Paterson’s set, a kind of oversized, Rococo-ish ornament of stacked, curved wood surrounded by a glittering sheer which is pulled aside by manservant Lane (Rory Walker) as the play commences. A lawn-green, rose-bedecked curtain is dropped for the second act’s country garden setting and saturated with light (Gavin Norris) for the required summery intensity. Paterson’s typically flamboyant costume design emphasises the era’s excesses and the Victorians’ fascination with bright dyes.
Geordie Brookman’s direction similarly pushes up the play’s style, turning it towards — without ever quite pushing it down the path of — camp. Wilde’s famous epigrams, which still astound in their lyrical, paradoxical construction and unrelenting flow, are padded out with bursts of physical comedy, sometimes needlessly.
There are moments, too, when Brookman’s heightening of the action patronises the audience, such as in the overcooked confrontation in the second act between Gwendolen (Anna Steen) and Cecily (Lucy Fry). The bitterly funny falling out of the pair over the misapprehension that they have been proposed to by the same man, brilliantly presaged and executed by Wilde, needs no extra flourishes — like Cecily’s spiteful licking of the teacake before she hands it to Gwendolen — for its full absurdity to be grasped.
Nathan O’Keefe and Yalin Ozucelik combine impressively, as Algernon and Jack respectively, in the play’s prototypical bromance. Part highly-strung fop, part reckless bon vivant, O’Keefe is an effective, if occasionally over the top, foil for Ozucelik’s contained solemnity.
Proud and officious, Nancye Hayes’ Lady Bracknell is every bit the gorgon ignorantly invoked by Jack. Her ‘A handbag?’ is served straight, the familiar horror-struck disbelief present and correct, the only surprise a long, pantomime-ish turn of the head towards the auditorium just before the line is delivered. I guess by now there is no choice but for the character to be seen to be in on the joke.
Fry and Steen, like O’Keefe and Ozucelik, are a strong duo, although it is a pity Steen is made to work hard in the second act to overcome a badly misconceived costume. Fry’s performance is especially enjoyable, confidently accessing both sides of the naïve-knowing duality inherent in the role.
Rory Walker and Caroline Mignone, in the play’s third and final double act of Doctor Chasuble and Miss Prism, have contagious fun underlining the subtextual desire their characters have for one another. Walker, who also plays both the manservant Lane and butler Merriman, happily steers Chasuble away from recent, lascivious interpretations of the character and back towards the part’s somewhat overlooked bookishness.
The real star, however, remains Wilde’s play. Even after 120 years, and the comprehensive demystification of the late Victorian era in which it was written, there is, as both Gwendolen and Cecily say of the name Earnest, music in it. Wilde purportedly spent many months completing countless, tiny revisions of virtually every line to achieve the play’s extraordinary economy of language. Its trivialities, in other words, come down to us through the years like the contents of a just-opened bottle of Perrier-Jouët because they were conceived with the utmost seriousness. That is Wilde’s great trick — except, of course, that it is not really a trick at all – and its magic was perfected with Earnest because with it, for the first time, the playwright was able to marry form and function in the most sparkling of ways.
There is plenty of welcome effervescence in this production but it need not have shaken up the bottle quite so much – the bubbles were always there, ready to go straight to the head just as they are.