When director Brandon Martignago moved to Bondi, a friend pulled him aside and explained the rules that one must follow when living in that part of town. “If you’re a local, you only go to North Bondi, never South Bondi,” he tells me with a laugh. “There are rules about where you can sit and what you can wear …” Martignago quickly came to realise that modern-day Sydney, with its codes of etiquette and propriety, is really not so different from the Victorian London that Oscar Wilde portrayed in The Importance Of Being Earnest. “I realised that Sydney really does have the same class divides, the same rules, the same codes of behaviour,” he says.
This new version of Earnest transplants the setting to contemporary Sydney, while hinting at the Victorian attitudes that exist beneath the shiny veneers. The changes, however, are more than cosmetic. “I see a lot of Earnest productions that are very static,” he explains. “You go along and see people in period costumes performing a classic text. We want to give it a freshness and contemporary life.” Unlike many productions of Earnest, this one makes full use of movement and gesture. “We’re a lot more physical with other people than people were in Wilde’s day,” Martignago says. Where characters would sit static or keep a polite distance, now they embrace and loom over one another.
“We’ve been reading through the text playing it as it would be originally then playing it as it would be now,” he says. “For example, there are scenes where Cecily interacts with Jack, her ward – when the play was originally performed, there would havebeen no touching, she would’ve stood there waiting to be spoken to, knowing her place. That relationship would be completely different now.” In this version, Cecily runs up and gives Jack a big hug when she first sees him. “That’s one of the ways in which things have become different in our time,” Martignago says. “Relationships have changed, but ideas of class – the way people use their status to put others in their place – are quite interesting.”
When casting the play, Martignago chose to cross gender lines, putting Andrew Benson in the role of the play’s thundering matriarch, Lady Bracknell. “A lot of people probably assume I made that choice purely because I’m a gay director,” he explains, “but really, I feel that Lady Bracknell is a very masculine. The play is written so that the bulk of it is two characters sitting in chairs having a chat, but then Lady Bracknell comes in and she’s very mobile, she takes charge and asks questions. I immediately associated her with a lot of male actors – Andrew in particular popped into my mind. He’s very powerful in the way he speaks and engages, but he has a certain softness about him too. I think the idea of him playing a woman is really intriguing.”
I ask Martignago if he sees a lot of Wilde’s influence in contemporary comedy, but he is uncertain. “It’s interesting,” he says, “because as a contemporary theatre company, we’re used to working with contemporary texts, but a lot of the je ne sais quoi of Wilde’s text is that there are no throwaway lines. In today’s drama, it’s all about conversation, about one character replying to another, whereas in Wilde, every line is a statement. It’s very dense, it’s a lot for contemporary actors to get their mouths around. Every line is a joke, a plot point, and then another joke. A lot of people present the play like it’s a museum piece, but we were very conscious of wanting to bring it into the now.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
The Importance Of Being Earnest is showing at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until August 3.