‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was campy.
On Friday night, Gold Coast’s Javeenbah Theatre Company presented their final season offering, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde and directed by Liam Mathers.
A classic and often-staged farce comedy, this play centres around the exploits of two upper-class men of the Victorian Era – John (also known as Ernest) and his best friend, Algernon. The story follows Algernon’s courtship of the young ingenue, Cecily, and John’s pursuit of the sophistical lady Gwendolen, who is also Algernon’s cousin. The plot includes a healthy dose of mistaken identity, campy characters and long-lost mothers. First performed in 1895, it was, interestingly, the tragic catalyst for the exposure of Wilde’s homosexuality. Nowadays, the play has a long history, being staged across the world, and even a film adaptation in 2002.
Javeenbah Theatre’s production sees Wilde’s play whisked into the 1980s. Everything from the costume, stage design and music is quintessential of this era. This is no longer your grandmother’s traditional play. It is a campy, unapologetically over-the-top rendition, and brings the comedy of the text into the present.
Set design by director Liam Mathers was dynamic, particularly in Act I. A white curtain lit from behind illuminated shadows of cast members, making it appear as if they were in a nightclub, all while Algernon delivered an audacious opening number. The staging utilised every aspect of the rostras, levels and prop pieces on the stage and created tension between characters during their conflicts.
Props such as diaries decked out with images of ’80s heartthrobs and costume design by Christine McLachlan were smart and bold. Lighting design by Colin Crow was reminiscent of an ‘80s disco or prom and was simple when it needed to be so that the moments created by the careful lighting design never lost their lustre. Every design element was clearly considered and distinctly ’80s, which cemented it in the decade.
The cast achieved quite a task in their presentation of this three-act play. They delivered their lines with near-perfect accuracy and gave justice to both the comedic and more heartwarming moments in the script. Brad Chapman’s dragged out Lady Bracknell, eerily reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, was fearsome and frolicsome. Miss Prism, played by Martina French brought spirit and warmth to the role and played with Phillip Victor as Dr Chasuble to create marvellous comedy during Act II.
Gwendolen, played by Laura Coulton, was empowered and free. She brought unique characterisations and gave Gwendolen tangible power over John. Chloe Smith played a darling Cecily, an obsessed lover of Algernon. She was energetic and roller-skated her way into the hearts of the audience at the beginning of Act II. The duo of John and Algernon, played by Daniel Dosek and Jack Lovett played off of each other with wit and comedic acumen. They each brought bold characterisation and chemistry to the stage.
Characters broke out into bold numbers throughout the play, taking on iconic ’80s hits such as ‘Like a Virgin’ and ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, which provided some hilarious and tense moments between the action of the play.
It was not just a spectacle production set in the ’80s purely for the joy that the aesthetic provides, but the recontextualisation gave us something to think about – something deeper than the comedy and outlandish Victorian values we’ve seen previously on stage. Mathers brought a brave interpretation that drew comparisons to the similarities of both time periods. The ’80s and the Victorian era were times of great financial opportunity, but also times when class struggles were exacerbated by the opulence and excess enjoyed by the upper-class society.
The most interesting way in which this is explored is in the servant characters of the play. Played by Nathan French, Jessica White and Alyssa Burnett, they are dutiful and quiet, watching and marvelling at the opulent antics of their social superiors, only letting loose in a wild musical number at the end of Act I. Chapman’s incarnation of Lady Bracknell as a conservative woman like Thatcher also brings the fearsome aristocrat into the era and gives a very recognisable face to the themes that Mather’s alludes to in his adaptation.
Javeenbah Theatre’s adaptation of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ captured exactly why staging productions of classic theatre is still able to be done and must be done. The reason why great playwrights like Wilde have lived on well past their own eras is that their plays recognise what it is like to be human. We still find the same things funny, heartwarming, maddening and inciting as we did 200 years ago, and these plays deserve to be updated so that they are able to take on new meanings and relevance in a contemporary theatrical imagination.
If a colourful, bombastic and thought-provoking night at the theatre is just what you need to get you through the last couple of months of 2021, you’ll have to add a trip to Javeenbah Theatre Company to your calendar.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ performs until Saturday, 4 December 2021 at Javeenbah Theatre Company. For more information visit Javeenbah Theatre’s website.