‘It’s interesting how lines that once simply slipped by register with spikes now’: Alison Croggon on the return of Ridiculusmus’ two-person The Importance of Being Earnest
I’m getting older, which can be both good and bad. Sometimes it feels as if all I have to look forward to is learning how to knit socks and cackle, so I’m properly prepared when the Revolution finally happens. On the negative side, all these years means that I have written about a lot of things before, sometimes several times. And I hate repeating myself.
I’ve reviewed Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on several occasions now. The first time was in 1989, when I saw Simon Phillips’ famous production, which starred Geoffrey Rush as Ernest Worthing and Frank Thring as a butler who memorably opened the show by reviewing the audience with indelible loathing. I reviewed the same production again in 2011, when Rush was Lady Bracknell. Halcyon days, halcyon days.
I’ve also reviewed Ridiculusmus’s production of this play before, when it was last at the Malthouse in 2006. And I find I want to say all the same things again. As I said, oh, 14 years ago, Ridiculusmus’s anarchic interpretation reminds me how resilient this play really is, how Wilde’s sure sense of theatricality and dramatic structure survives – even gleams the more brightly – under their disrespectful treatment.
Wilde’s observation that human behaviour is a profound playing of roles (“To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up,” says one character in An Ideal Husband) makes this play particularly apt to Ridiculusmus’ treatment. Jon Haynes and David Woods play all nine characters, helped with ever more chaotic costume changes.
When I first saw this production, it was in the Beckett Theatre. And I did wonder this time if the Merlyn was simply too big for it – it’s a production that rewards intimacy. The extra steps on the massive stage also expand the timing. In Die! Die! Old People Die!, Haynes and Woods exploited the space to disarticulate the rhythms of performance to a maddening degree, and there’s a little of this sense here – the pauses as an actor ironically regards the audience while the other shuffles off stage to change costume and character, the slow-boil of some of the comic moments.
Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of camp, the aesthetic of pure artifice. As Susan Sontag comments, camp is “above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous… It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it is not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.)” Camp is not the opposite of serious: Wilde was, after all, the most serious of artists. But it’s his unmalicious laughter at the passionate superficiality of human beings that gives this play its irresistible buoyancy.
The play itself is a brilliant conceit, and much more than an elaborate excuse for a bad pun. Not a single character in it is in the least credible: each one of them, from the various Ernests to Lady Bracknell, is an utterly conscious being, wholly aware of his or her own subtext. As Gwendolen says – although, unless I missed it, not in this version – the vital thing is style, not sincerity.
‘Wilde’s sure sense of theatricality and dramatic structure survives – even gleams the more brightly – under their disrespectful treatment’
In the comic couplings of the various pairs of lovers, Wilde acutely sketches romantic love as egocentric projection: the Lacanian admonition on the impossibility of actual love is here given theatrical body. The attraction of Ernest (whether Algernon or Jack) lies in his name, not his person. Its charm exists in the sensational imaginations of Cecily and Gwendolen, and both of them are completely conscious of their own egocentricity (Cecily even writes her own love letters to herself). That Jack does indeed turn out to be Ernest – that his lies were in fact the truth – does not disturb Gwendolen’s satisfaction, since, as she observes sagely, her Ernest is “sure to change”.
From the start you are not allowed to forget that you are watching actors pretending to be someone else, which creates yet another layer of performance to those already woven into the play. Zoe Atkinson’s set is an over-the-top collection of Victoriana, every square inch a nightmare of chintz and chi-chi, and all the stage business is transparent to the audience. Sound cues are (mostly) controlled by the actors with a remote control, and different characters are indicated by costume changes. This reaches its apogee in a moment where both actors embody two characters each, coyly twirling pink umbrellas to shift the illusion.
At the beginning the costume changes create lengthy pauses that are fully exploited for their comedic possibilities, as David Woods dons the butler outfit or Jon Haynes becomes (to the accompaniment of the Ride of the Valkyries) Lady Bracknell in full sail. (Special points for Lady Bracknell’s magnificent hat, with its black chicken). Once the conceit is established, the switches become more and more inventive, using hand puppets and other devices, until by the end a wig or a shirt is enough to suggest a whole character.
Of course, as with all theatre, the weight of its meanings has shifted over time. There was a moment when the casual sexism of Algernon and Ernest literally made the audience gasp. It’s interesting how lines that once simply slipped by register with spikes now. And this time the play’s subtext of class seemed to have an extra dimension of underlying anger. There’s a joke about Liberal Democrats that perhaps doesn’t land as acutely for a Melbourne audience as it might for a British one, but the characters’ essential heartlessness has an extra bite.
And somehow, underneath the chaotic stage business, you find yourself deeply invested in all these absurd characters. Bizarrely, this feels like a straight production of the play, which is perhaps more than anything a tribute to the quality of acting. You won’t see many productions more acutely accomplished than this one.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, devised, edited and performed by Jon Haynes and David Woods. Original direction Jude Kelly. Design and costumes by Zoe Atkinson. Ridiculusmus and Malthouse Theatre. Until March 8. Bookings
Relaxed Performance: 7.30pm, February 21
Seniors Performance: 5pm, March 1