Described as a perfectly written comedy, Oscar Wilde’s famous work first performed in 1895, explores the absurdities and trivialities of Victorian era High Society in London. Director Brandon Martignago’s latest production through Burley Theatre attempts to demonstrate its contemporary relevance with mixed results.

The play centres on friends John (Micahel Whalley) and Algernon (Kurt Phelon) who have both fabricated the existence of different acquaintances in order to escape their relentless social obligations. John intends to marry Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Paige Gardiner) and Algernon soon falls for John’s ward, Cecily (Katie McDonald). Gwendolen and Cecily are both in love with Earnest. But just who exactly is said Earnest?

 

In adapting such an iconic work, any production faces the difficult task of reinventing the wheel. As with Shakespeare, the flow and language of the script is the work’s signature, making modernisation a tricky business.

 

In this case, the obvious tools of set and costume are used effectively. The music is also  modern and is particularly effectual in Cecily’s introductory scene. Unfortunately, as there are only three acts in the two-hour performance, there is minimal opportunity for making the necessary framing references, which are so vital when convincingly modernising period pieces. As such, some references feel forced (for example, referring to mobile phones as diaries).

 

Considering the rapid-fire dialogue and the fact it was opening night, there were relatively few script errors. The actors’ obvious awareness of the play’s iconic lines was overly apparent but most found their rhythm after intermission. The exception was Paige Gardiner, who’s portrayal of the polished and sophisticated Gwendolen disin’t miss a beat.

 

The crowd favourite, though, is definitely Andrew Benson as the opinionated and forceful Lady Bracknell. Following Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent production starring Geoffrey Rush, the trend of having a male in this role adds another level of amusement to this already witty satire.

 

This production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest manages to remain faithful while at the same time attempting to reach new contextual territory.

 

3/5 stars

 

BY LEE HUTCHISON

 

The Importance of Being Earnest is showing at the Seymour Centre until Saturday August 3.

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