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The Importance of Being Earnest – a fitting tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Arts Festival February 6, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Literature.
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It seems that in 2011 alone, there were several revivals of the Oscar Wilde evergreen The Importance of Being Earnest. A casual search online uncovered productions by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan, the Wingspan Theater Company in Dallas, and Rose Kingston Theatre in the UK.

The enduring popularity of the play is due in no small measure to the steady barrage of clever wordplay, one-liners, acidic barbs and throwaway witticisms it maintains throughout; but the universality and contemporary relevance of Wilde’s commentary on social hypocrisy and human duplicity would probably have a lot to do with it as well.

It is only fitting that the Hong Kong Arts Festival should choose Rose Theatre Kingston’s production directed by Stephen Unwin as the lead drama for its 40th anniversary.  With such a superb script crafted by Wilde, any half decent theatre company would be a good box-office draw and make a success of it.  That is not to belittle Rose Kingston.  Its performance is taut, fast-paced and well thought out.

I can’t help thinking that Lady Bracknell is Wilde’s favourite character – she gets most of the best lines and the most distinctive profile.  Carol Royle is just offhandish enough to be amusing, but not too disdainful to be repulsive.

Daniel Brocklebank as John Worthing and Mark Edel-Hunt as Algernon Moncrieff are credible well-heeled layabouts.  Their fight over muffins for tea at the end of the second act is hilarious and symmetrical with an earlier spat between Gwendolen and Cecily.

Faye Castelow oozes refreshing and brainy youth as Cecily, fantasising about engagement with John Worthing’s imaginary brother.  Kirsty Besterman, by comparison, presents Gwendolen less elegantly.  Their vituperative contest in thinking that they are engaged to the same man by the name of Earnest is a vivid reminder of Algernon Moncrieff’s prescient remark in the first act that women call each other sister “when they have called each other a lot of other things first”.

The set is almost minimalist but faithful to the Victorian historical context.  The large amounts of space provides plenty of room for walking about, but with a small cast the stage does look a little empty and under-designed.  The costumes also follow a similarly simple principle, light-coloured and graceful for the ladies.  The men’s are more colourful, with the contrast between Algernon’s beige suit and John Worthing’s total blackness in mourning for his invented brother particularly striking.

The Importance of Being Earnest suggests parallels with Shakespeare for me.  Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew’s obsession with the name Earnest as qualification for amorous attention harks back to Juliet’s famous line “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  Surely the disguised identities and lovelorn couples could have been inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  Yet any suggestion that Wilde was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare would no doubt draw scorn from the Lady Bracknells of literary criticism.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Rose Theatre Kingston, directed by Stephen Unwin

Sunday 5th February, 2012

Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival