The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde. Sydney Theatre Company. Roslyn Packer Theatre. September 9 – October 14, 2023

Oscar Wilde was sentenced for indecency to hard labour in Reading Gaol within months of his most famous comedy opening in 1895.  It’s the dark shadow behind The Importance of Being Earnest, with its hilarious mockery of the British upper classes and their willing ignorance and hypocrisy. 

Wilde’s queer eye also turns the comic screw on how trapped they are in their own strait-jacked (heterosexual) conventions of love and marriage.  Their revenge of sort soon followed.

Sarah Giles’ production is full of high camp laughs but creates a little space for the queer truth and social justice issues of a modern age. Charles Davis’ opulent London apartment and sunny country house and garden does allow us a peek downstairs into the silent lives of the servants.

Upstairs, Worthing and Algernon are relishing how they can disguise their constant escape to London’s excesses by having a demanding fictional friend or relation. But now their mixed identities are threatened by love, Worthing’s desire for Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen, who both are about to arrive for tea, and Algernon’s desire for Worthing’s own ward Cecily.  

Renee Mulder’s sumptuous costumes extend the madness of Edwardian fashion and are show-stealing.  Even the fabulous Helen Thomson battles her own dresses for attention – she plays a much more reasoned Lady Bracknell than the haughty ones of old. Megan Wilding, as her daughter, is an unlikely paramour for Worthing, dressed like a spaceship and pushing all boundaries to absurdity and amusing face-pulling.    

Almost every actor does funny walks and there’s heaps of business, some of it riotous, but playing havoc with Wilde’s perfect rhythmic pathways to meaning and comic timing.

As Worthing, Brendon McClelland is a typically truthful and generous actor, and Charles Wu’s Algernon is clear and appealing, but again in competition with costumes which make him a teenage fop.

Melissa Kahraman’s inexplicable costume makes her Cecily into a clown while Lucia Mastrantone superbly re-invents the traditionally pinched spinster Miss Prism.  The servants are all a delight, with a dotty Emma Sullivan, Sean O’Shea as the depressive butler, Gareth Davies the immaculate servant and a ghoulish Bruce Spence (also the pompous Reverend Chasuble).

Sarah Giles again sports her skill as a comic director of all these inventive actors but needs to trim their excesses, their long moments of comic expectations, and trust in letting the words speak – and those darker issues peep out. That probably won’t happen. The audience loved it.

Martin Portus

Photographer: Daniel Boud

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