The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde at his farcical best! A stinging satire on Victorian mores, it simultaneously befuddles and cajoles at a wonderfully alarming pace leaving the watcher grinning like a fool at its clever wit.
Director Matthew Cox is bringing this classic Wilde to South Yarra later this month and, for Cox, it is an itch that has been a long time in scratching.
“Oscar Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest were first introduced to me by my year 11 English teacher,” says Cox. “I was the type of kid that rushed home from school every evening to watch The Simpsons at 6pm, which I then regarded as being the high water mark of all comedy. I still remember sitting at home one night after school, opting to miss The Simpsons to devote a full night to reading the Earnest script. It was amazing to me then, as a 16 year old, that something written over a hundred years ago could be so laugh-out-loud funny. I was in love. I’ve seen the show many times, but I’ve never seen a production that reached the levels of farcical outrageousness that I had in my head. In a way, this show is about scratching that itch. ”
Like Wilde himself, this work transcends time and location and is as relevant today as it was when it forts opened in 1895.
“At its heart, The Importance of Being Earnest is a satire of elitist values and hypocrites,” says Cox. “Whilst the England that Wilde lampooned is far behind us, it’s painfully easy to recognise the traits he was attacking all around us. There are public-figures that proclaim an ideal in public, only to turn around and subvert it in their personal life. There are people we meet every day who pigeon-hole others based on where we live, our job description, education or gender. Snobbery, elitism and hypocrisy is timeless. It’s also incredibly funny to mock.”
The play has been presented often and in many genres: film, opera, radio, musicals, commercial recordings and, of course, on the stage. Interpretations have also varied from the more traditional to a modern upgrade. Cox acknowledges that his Earnest will be a homage to Wilde’s energy, wit, exuberance and ultimate endurance.
“It’s often bothered me that a “traditional” take on Earnest is a show in which the actors sit stony faced, reciting Wilde’s witticisms and drinking tea,” states Cox. “Of course the dialogue is undoubtedly brilliant and the reason why the show has become a classic. Baked within the script, however, is an implicit message from Wilde about how this show should be performed. We need to meet him at the level of the dialogue.
This is not an Earnest where the actors sit, blank faced, reciting witticism and drinking tea. You’ll find no talking heads here. This is Wilde; four absinthe’s deep on a Friday night, filters of decorum and decency thoroughly abandoned. It’s a show packed with immensely overdressed, overeducated characters who are horny, wicked and ravenous, with physical comedy frequently reaching the absurdity of the dialogue.
I want people to feel the same sense of hilarious adoration I felt when I discovered Earnest for the first time, and I want people who’ve seen it before to remember why they fell in love in the first place.”
Earnest is a play that brought Wilde great success but it is also a work that lies synonymous with Wilde’s final moments of freedom. It is this harrowing chapter that presently intrigues the director in Cox.
“Right now I’m fascinated with the struggle that Oscar Wilde had with the pompous and overly conservative Victorian society that he was unfortunate enough to have to live, and conceal himself, within as a gay man.
Nowadays we are fortunate enough to have the liberty to launch public movements against established regimes that oppress our identities. Wilde did not have that luxury.
In many ways, Earnest is a genius’ assault on the established regime that oppressed him. Wilde wrote a satire of the superficial values of upper Victorian society and, like a Trojan horse, placed it on stage for the very people he was attacking. That’s brilliant.”
The play is being produced by Artefact Thetare Co: a young, new, Melbourne indie company who have two very successful previous seasons of Seminar by Theresa Re-beck and David Auburn’s Proof under their belt.
Cox acknowledges that he and Artefact both share the belief theatre should leave a lasting imprint on it’s audience. The company’s mission statement is to create theatre that can change and shape an audience’s thinking.
Wilde’s masterpiece continues to shine – bunburying and all!
Says Cox: “I spend every rehearsal for this show doubled over in hysterics. I leave every rehearsal for this show with a huge grin plastered on face. Directing this show has been the theatrical equivalent of a sugar rush. Watching it will be even better.”
March 27 – April 7