Oscar Wilde’s fabulously satirical play, The Importance of Being Earnest, produced by Artefact Theatre, opens at Chapel of Chapel this month. An encore performance of their critically acclaimed production of last year, Artefact Theatre are delighted to, once again, be able to present Wilde’s most well known play to audiences.

A satire of Wilde’s late Victorian era, Earnest is a play that includes the oft casting of the formidable Lady Bracknell by a man. Many famous women have indeed played the role (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Ruth Cracknell to name a handful) as have many famous men ( David Suchet, Geoffrey Rush, Brian Bedford et al) – Artefact have chosen their Lady Bracknell in actor Ryan Murphy.

Indeed, The Importance of Being Earnest has a very special place in his heart. It was, he admits,  the first proper play he ever did. “I was sixteen, in high school, playing the role of Dr Chasuble and I can still remember the smell of the grey hair spray they put in my hair to age me up. This is simply one of the greatest plays ever written and when the opportunity to revisit it playing Lady Bracknell (a dream role) came up I jumped at it. I’m really trying to honour the character, as so many legendary actors have come before me, but I also want to bring a slightly different twist to her as well.”

Murphy has been a Wilde fan since that high school play and has read and seen a number of his works since his first encounter with him. As most people who have ever read anything to do with Wilde, Murphy is also intrigued by Wilde’s life.

“Wilde’s own history is something I found fascinating to explore as well. He certainly lived a life filled with incident.”

(Some aspects of Wilde’s later sobering life is excellently explored in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by the exemplary playwright, Moisés Kaufman.)

Wilde continues to be known as one of the best writers of all time. His language structure – involving quips, banter and bon mots – as well as rhythm and poetry, remains unflawed. It is these delicious linguistic deceits that keeps this play – first staged in 1895 – and characters, as fresh and alive as when it was first penned.

Murphy acknowledges that it’s incredible how all of those individual elements in the script have created the most detailed characters. “Wilde gives us everything we need to know as the actors playing the role, but also the audience being entertained by his genius,” he says. “Wilde takes on the ridiculousness of the class system in England and held a mirror in front of the upper class, in order to show them how ridiculous they were. A very brave thing to do in those times.”

For Murphy,  Wilde’s Earnest (first performed cover 120 years ago) is still as relevant today as it was then.

“All the technical aspects to the play are well know to people (the wit and language etc), but I also think the play is still sadly relevant,” he says. “We still live in class system and judge people and where they live, what job they have, the school they went to, what their parents do/did and many other things. I think we may all see a little of ourselves in the characters of this play. But most of all it’s just an exceptionally funny and well written play, that is a joy to watch and be a part of.”

Murphy comes to this production in the role which was previously played by James Cutler, who is now on the international tour of School of Rock. “So we had to find another actor big enough to fill the heels of Lady B,” says Artefact Theatre producer Sarah  Cuthbert.

Thus it is Murphy’s first time working with Artefact Theatre and he couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of this team. “The work ethic of the cast and production team is really incredible and gives everyone the freedom to work at their fullest,” he states. “The cast is also amazing to work with and play around with. It’s very exciting to be working for a company that is producing great work with integrity that is bringing new works as well as the classics to Melbourne audiences.”

The show is being directed by Matthew Cox (as was last year’s production in South Yarra) and, for Murphy, Cox is an actor’s dream.

“He comes to the work with a clear idea of how the show should move and breathe but gives us actors the freedom to play around,” says Murphy about Cox’s style. “This really is a fresh take on this classic and explores the farcical nature of the play. No idea is too crazy or too over the top and if an actors offer work better than his own ideas, he trusts them enough to use it. There is no ego involved with working with Matt and his love for the play is infectious.”

Having not known one another before this p[production, Murphy now looks forward to a long friendship and working relationship with him. “Please cast me again!!!”

Earnest is a farcical romp for both audience and actor in rehearsal. It’s sheer silliness has the power to instil happiness and wonder – a feat of Wilde’s pen still resonating today.

Murphy’s favourite thing about rehearsing the play has indeed been the joy the play brings to the actors…”There hasn’t been a rehearsal go by where we haven’t all burst into fits of laughter speaking these words and making giant offers in the rehearsal room,” he says. “There’s nothing better then a relaxed rehearsal room that gives people the space to have fun!”

There a few challenges for any new actor joining an existing ensemble and Murphy reveals that this has been true for himself joining this production, however, his experience has been positive through the support of the other creatives.

“As this is a re-mount of the original production of from last year and being the only new actor to the cast, its been really difficult being ok that I’m behind everyone else,” he states. “Everyone has been so kind, understanding and helpful, I’ve been able to create my own Lady Bracknell, which I think is very different to the last productions (played by the amazing James Cutler who is a very hard act to follow). “

As an actor Murphy loves comedy! “People tell me not to categorise myself, but I’m a character actor who loves to play plump comedic roles and make people laugh. I tend to find the humour in every role, even if the role is a dramatic one. Life is filled with funny moments even in the darkest of times, you just have to scratch below the surface a little.”

Says Murphy: “Come and see this brilliant show the way it should be played. Fast, hilarious, farcical and full of heart! Also me in 1890’s female costume is most definitely something people should come and see… I think I look quite beautiful!”

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a tour-de-force of a must see show!

March 26 – April 6