The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

Who doesn’t love Earnest? W!LD RICE first staged their all-male take on Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners in 2009, a production which went on to garner three wins at the Life! Theatre Awards 2010, including Production of the Year. Having caught various productions of Earnest over the years, including a decent but somewhat unsatisfying West End version featuring Penelope Keith, I can safely declare that Glen Goei's is the best I’ve seen to date.

Earnest is the tale of two men who invent alter egos to court the women they love, a sparkling satire on Victorian values cloaked in the language of wit ("The truth is rarely pure and never simple"; "Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone"; "In married life three is company and two none"). W!LD RICE does its best to immerse us in that genteel era of high culture and high society. Before the performance begins, we are treated to a musical prologue where the cast (in white shirts and jeans) mill around on stage, some handing out cucumber sandwiches to the audience, while four musicians from The Ensemble Dimension Players perform a lovely selection of classical music. The musical interludes continue between the Acts, keeping the atmosphere elegant and jaunty.

Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

The set (designed by Ivan Heng) is rendered in simple black and white and features three-sided rotating columns that form the backdrop to each of the three scenes over a harlequin-print floor. There’s not much in the way of actual furniture and props but this is more than compensated by Frederick Lee’s exquisite costumes, a medley of sharply tailored suits in shades of black and white.

Acting-wise, performances are generally excellent with crisp delivery and a keen attention to the rhythm and nuances of Wilde’s lines. I was pleased to discover a naughty double entendre in lines like "I intend to develop in many directions" and "We might go as far as the schools and back". There is outstanding work by Chua Enlai as Gwendolyn who executes his lines with perfection, his altercation with Gavin Yap's Cecily in Act II being particularly noteworthy. Ivan Heng, ever the scene-stealer, is a delight to watch as the formidable Lady Bracknell and effortlessly commands the stage with his pursed lips and arched eyebrows.

Lim Kay Siu, the only member of the cast not from the original 2009 run, acquits himself decently in the role of bumbling clergyman Dr Chasuble. I didn't however sense the chemistry between him and Hossan Leong's Miss Prism: their scenes are terribly funny but not quite romantic. And this leads me to the central thrust of Goei’s production: does the all-male casting throw a different light on the play? I certainly didn't find myself being distracted by the fact the half the cast weren’t women; suspension of disbelief in the theatre is ridiculously easy to achieve. What this staging however underscores is the fact that gender is but a mundane and fluid concept. As we watch these actors, we become less interested in their romantic, physical pairings and more in the social issues and themes that lie within the play. And the gender-blind casting is successful in this regard.

Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

Like all farces, Earnest thrives on excellent timing and Glen Goei's direction successfully brings out the hilarity of Wilde's lines alongside the abundant physical comedy: I loved the flamboyant flapping of tailcoats whenever a character takes a seat and Cecily's scream when Algernon proposes to her in the garden is priceless. Goei's staging however occasionally falls prey to over-affectation. Jack’s entrance in mourning garb in Act II does not have to be played with quite as much melodrama by Daniel York (beating breast and all) and Leong’s otherwise delightful Miss Prism is far too screechy and prone to silly hand gestures for my liking.

With Earnest, W!LD RICE demonstrates once again how they can take one of the most well-loved plays of the English theatre canon and make it entirely their own. I'm glad to have attended this tea party; it was quite the perfect soirée.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5


Popular Posts