Oscar Wilde’s most well known society play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is soon to grace the Malthouse theatre stage, but, in the hands of actors (and co-creators) David Woods and Jon Haynes, this new adaptation is not what one might expect. Woods puts it succinctly: Two actors instead of nine, a fresh take on the handbag line, bonus humour from the multi-character-period costume conceit. Familiar lines awoken.

First staged in 2006, the team of co-writers, Haynes, Woods and Dame Jude Kelly, bring their brilliant adaptation back to the Malthouse to launch its 30th Anniversary season.  A fabulous success at its first outing, the team of Woods and Haynes are sure to recreate similar as they tackle every role – from John Worthing to Cecily Cardew – with comedic precision.

A deliberate decision to cut out all the dated aphorisms, over-written sequences and other fluff was one of the strategies used in this adaptation, explains Woods. “We have stringently maintained all of the key-tensions of the original and added our own wash of manufactured worries through the two people playing nine characters in full period costume conceit. We felt this supported the theme of artifice quite well, or at least excused the paucity of resources in mounting this show that way.”

Woods explains that the idea to adapt Wilde’s classic came about when Kelly expressed her interest to work with both Woods and Haynes on a comedy of manners. The collaborators then looked at the entire tradition from restoration comedies forwards. The dominance of duologues, and Haynes’ childhood love of the play, gave Earnest the decision over many other worthy candidates.

Additionally, Woods describes the significance of the original play on a personal level as a class thing. “My Grandparents Bill and Ethel both worked “below stairs” in England and my father was born in servants quarters in the basement of a large country house in Suffolk where they were retained at the time, ” he says. “Family folklore is littered with their abuse at the hands of the aristocratic household who held them with an ingrained contempt mingled with utter dependency. I enjoy the articulation of a similar tension in the play. Wilde captures the fragility of the arrogant very well and his characters’ desperation to preserve their pompous privileged world sets up a great comic energy to play off. I find all that cathartic-therapeutic and inter-generationally redemptive.”

It then took about a year to get everything in place, explains Woods. “Two commissioning partners in the Barbican, London and The Brisbane Powerhouse; a UK-Australian creative team. We spent around 6 weeks in various rehearsal rooms with Jude joining us when she could around her London 2012 Olympic bid work.” The tactic was for Woods and Haynes to do all the editing on the floor, then present versions to Kelly for approval and improvement.

Adapting a full length play with many characters into a two hander is not without its challenges, both in writing and on the rehearsal floor, says Woods. “We are blessed with a script laden with classic duologues. When more than two appear on stage at the same time we degenerate through increasingly streamlined solutions to what has come to be known in the remnants of the post-physical theatre independent sector as “Hat-swapping”. Our challenge is to hold back from this relatively easy but durationally dull solution until the very last exchanges. This requires a level of extreme intellectual and physical dexterity, effort and commitment. 15 years on from the first season our main challenge is to re-produce that youthful effervescence.”

The partnership of Woods and Haynes ostensibly began at The Poor School in London in 1992. They had studied English Literature at Sheffield University,  but 6 years apart and discovered, along with that coincidence that they lived 500 metres from each other in a cheap corner of London called Nunhead. (named after the beheading of a nun in what was the village square). A mutual admiration of each other’s work arose; especially in animal studies (Haynes  was rhino, Woods was a crane) and Shakespeare (Haynes was Hamlet, Woods was Polonius); and one night after an extended freeform ape improvisation in Woods’ bathtub with Angus Barr (Bent Penny, Claw) they started busking 20s and 30s comedy patter songs accompanied by Angus’ banjulele.

“An invitation to fill a cancelled slot at the Canal Café theatre came into the school towards the end of our second year and I said yes. They asked for an idea, I said: “An adaptation of Three Men In A Boat?” I’d given my Dad a copy for his birthday the week before and knew there was a banjo involved “with songs”. They asked what we were called and I turned to the lingering melee of our fellow drama students and relayed the question. A daytime classics tutor, Michael Healy pronounced “ Ridiculusmus!” that’s what you are called!” This tumble of fortuitous circumstances set up the foundation of our partnership but it wasn’t until Angus departed for a film project that we made our first original duet and realised we had a sustainable artistic future.”

Woods acknowledges the very different world views, lives and circles that draw them both but adds, “…that he engages with mine with such grace and creative energy I shall be eternally grateful. I endeavour to offer the same and he accepts my wildly variable attempts with unflinching faith that sometimes we conjure moments of unforgettable magic together.”

The couple became a trio after Kelly had attended some of their plays and it was during one post-show chat with her, after the premiere of their corporate creativity satire “Ideas Men “at the Barbican, that they proposed a collaboration. “Jude had a happy track record of working with ambitious/possibly delusional theatre double acts in the form of the National Theatre of Brent and was warm to the idea of revisiting the arrangement with us,” says Woods.

Woods posits that Wilde’s ingenious satire on social mores still thrives as a piece of theatre after more than a hundred years of performances. It still functions comedically. That’s special. Woods most admires the craft of its construction and the freshness of its commentary on duplicity.

His advice to a perspective audience: Several thousand people have already bought tickets and it’s a short season!

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (bunburying is to be expected)

February 14 – March 8