Entering the modest and unassuming venue of Kenworthy Hall at St. Mary’s College, with its simplistic set-up blurring the lines between stage and audience, may not have led some to expect the delicious performance to follow. However, to those familiar with Oscar Wilde’s subversive work, it may have surfaced in retrospect; through the course of the show, the functional setting effortlessly transitioned from an internal setting to an external and internal again, much like a geographical actualisation of an epigram of Wilde’s own imagining. Foot of the Hill’s production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ executes such delightful subversions confidently and is a consistently brilliant show with a duration of two and half hours.
Ben Smart’s Algernon, with his intentional flamboyance and ever-present devilish grin, offered a fitting contrast to the stiff gait and exaggerated concern of Luke Sinner’s Jack. Perhaps even more gratifying was the calculated confidence of Ella Blaxill’s Gwendolyn and her interaction with the self-affirmed idealism of Lowri Mathias’s Cecily. None of the actors seemed to possess any reluctance to completely embrace the eccentricities of their characters, whether it was the comic explosions of sensual passion from Miss Prism towards a proudly celibate Reverend Chasuble, or the indignant and often ridiculous attempts at control from Lady Bracknell. However, Alice Bridge’s brilliant direction makes it clear, it is Gwendolyn and Cecily who are the real playmakers of the narrative, and the subtle artistic decisions make it obviously so.
A key element that improved the professionalism of the production was undoubtedly the costumes. The 19th-century get-up – puffy sleeves, three-piece suits and all – was an admirable feat by costume designer Monica Jones. While the abundance of fabric could have been a hindrance, each performer gave the impression of seeming entirely comfortable and at peace with portraying these chaotic personalities and their complicated hairdos and buttoned vests.
The paramount importance of food and consumption in the Wilde’s work is something that Bridge’s production does not ignore. Smart’s frantic devouring of cucumber sandwiches in the opening scene, and an especially delightful argument between him and Sinner about muffins at a later point in the play, are two of numerous successful moments, even if solely in its navigation around a potential choking hazard. Another fruitful artistic decision was the choice to make the butlers, Lane and Merriman, a double role in the undertaking of the talented Keir Mulcahey, who his accent and demeanour as effortlessly as he makes comedic moments out of minor hiccups. Despite little dialogue, Mulcahey had much to offer to the role and quickly became a favourite with the audience.
Overall, the production is victorious in achieving a balance of power between the play’s self-conscious triviality and the characters’ serious intentions. Bridge clearly respects Wilde’s ironic voice; it is pervasive through every pause and inflection of each performer’s delivery. While it’s a nearly impossible task to honour every nuance of Wilde’s genius, this student production reaches a magnificent proximity. At the root of it all, it was simply joyful to hear the uproarious laughter of a 21st century audience in response to the caricatures of a 19th century society that is perhaps more sympathetic of the ironic voice than an audience that, according to Wilde, was caught up in the seriousness of their own generation’s triviality. Finally, it is in the success of staying true to the original tone of the play and simultaneously arousing reactions from a modern audience that Bridge’s production achieves its memorable delight and thunderous applause.
By Aadira Parakkat