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Review: SUDS’ The Importance of Being Earnest

When he heard Michael Spence was going, Janek Drevikovsky just had to get tickets.

Image centre is a small table set with cake for afternoon tea, one young woman on either side, both dressed in relaxed 1950s garden wear. Woman on right looks away while woman on left speaks, mouth open. Between them, butler dressed in black and white stands, during tea. The taking of tea, like a night at the theatre, is one of life's small refinements: Remi Adeney, Anita Donovan and Thomas Hanaee show us how it's done, Wilde-style.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the archetypal comedy of manners. It’s Wilde at the height of his witty genius—a classic. And, for the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS), it’s a risk. Earnest is the heartthrob play of every English major. Oscar can do no wrong, says the army of would-be parlour wits; any faults are to be blamed on the production.

And when one Dr Michael Spence—no mean English major himself—is in your first-night audience, the pressure’s on. So thank god, for SUDS’ sake, that this is a fine bit of theatre.

As with any production of Wilde, Earnest lives by its cast. Stripped of the witty writing, the plot is a shambles of confused identities, reducible to the titular pun: it really is important to be earnest, when one (or maybe two, or maybe none) of the main characters is named Ernest. Through the absurdity flows a torrent of one-liners—smilingly devastating attacks on class, aristocracy and respectability. And of course, afternoon tea:

“I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.”

From the cast, this humour requires an unstudied obliviousness: the characters must persist in their pretentious logic even as the ridiculousness mounts. In SUDS’ production, the leads—particularly the female leads—do a good job of it. Anita Donovan is perfectly deadpan as the self-assured Gwendolen, Ernest’s love interest. Out of all the performances, hers is the most innovative: Donovan’s Gwendolen has an intensity, an almost threatening intelligence, which isn’t immediately apparent in the script.

The standout performance, however, is Lady Bracknell, played by Lucinda Spence (on matters of lineage, Honi makes no assumptions). Bracknell is given to imperious pronouncements, which Spence delivers with a puckered lip and the regal nasality of Grosvenor square:

“The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”

Dressed in black, with gossamer gloves and a fascinator, Spence carries herself with dripping disdain; it really is as if a matriarch of the English gentry has swept onto the Cellar Theatre stage.

Algernon, a voracious fop played by Campbell Taylor, is effective as well. Taylor’s timing is excellent, and he seems dedicated to his art, following through on a running gag which has his character devouring plates of teatime delights. How Taylor stays so slim after a plate of cucumber sandwiches and several muffins remains a mystery to Honi. Any dieting secrets can be forwarded to the letters’ page.

Ernest (actually Jack, as it quickly emerges) is given a sympathetic portrayal by Anthony Lovett. If anything, perhaps too sympathetic: at points, he reaches moral awareness, seemingly ashamed about his scheming. He even comes across as genuinely in love with Gwendolen. This portrayal sits uneasily with Wilde’s tone, which Bernard Shaw described as “extremely funny” but “heartless”. That’s the point. As Gwendolen remarks:

“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”

The play doesn’t care about sincerity in its characters, or their inner worlds. They are there to apply aristocratic norms to a ridiculous scenario, with hilarious, exquisitely predictable results. But development, emotions—heart—don’t come into the equation.

So it would have helped, in a play where form is everything, to have consistency with accents. Spence, Donovan, Taylor, Fred Pryce and Gabrielle Vanderdeyl at least give received pronunciation a go, even if only Spence is convincing. The rest of the cast, however, keep their Aussie twang, which is jarring in comparison. If ever there was a time to feel the cultural cringe, it’s while watching the English aristocracy mock themselves out of existence.

Cast aside, the production does little to tamper with the original. Madelaine Caban’s costuming is more Mad Men than Downton Abbey, and an oblique reference to the year suggests we are in fact in the 50s. But not much is made of it: the script stays uncut, and the set could as easily be a country manor or a modernist mansion. That said, Maddy Picard’s use of space is clever: despite the Cellar’s cramped conditions, the drawing room set feels expansive, with its white paint coat and floral patterns. The lighting helps too: warm and unobtrusive, it is just dynamic enough to bring depth to the set. As the cast bustle in and out, you’re left with the illusion this really is a grand manor house.

For SUDS, a company at home with the avant garde, putting on a traditional play is itself a break from tradition. But this production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a crowd pleaser. It stays close to the text and receives expert treatment from a talented cast. And, clearly, it hits the right notes with Those Who Matter: as the audience filed out, the Vice Chancellor was overheard calling the play “wonderful”. High praise, though perhaps a tad uncritical. Better to take Algernon’s advice from Act I:

“Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.”