by Lynn on June 22, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. until Oct. 9.

Written by Oscar Wilde

Directed by Tim Carroll

Set by Gillian Gallow

Costumes by Christina Poddubiuk

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Original music and sound by James Smith

Cast: Neil Barclay

Julia Course,

Peter Fernandes

Martin Happer

Kate Hennig

Patty Jamieson

André Morin

Ric Reid

Gabriella Sundar Singh

Graeme Somerville

Jacqueline Thair

Beautiful set. Stylish production with a revolutionary interpretation of Lady Bracknell by Kate Hennig.

The Story. In The Importance of Being Earnest (A trivial comedy for serious people) look for dazzling wit, vaulting language, impeccable manners, shameless social climbing, the importance of a name, silliness, but absolutely no logic.  The dialogue will be given with such seriousness that you will almost think that the wild (sorry) story makes sense.

Ernest Worthing has come to tea at his good friend Algernon Moncreiff. Algernon is expecting his Aunt, Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax. Ernest is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax and hopes to propose. But first Algernon wants to return Ernest’s cigarette case that was left there the last time, but there is a problem. The cigarette case is engraved to “Uncle Jack” from  Little Cecily’. Uncle Jack? But it’s Ernest’s cigarette case The explanation is that Mr. Worthing goes by the name Ernest in town and Jack in the country. (Don’t ask). Cecily lives in the country and “Jack”/Ernest is her guardian.

Algernon offers that he has created a character called Bunbury who lives in the country but is not in good health. Bunbury is used as an excuse to go to the country whenever he wants without explanation. (Don’t ask).

When Gwendolyn accepts Ernest’s proposal, he learns that she always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. He asks, “But what if my name was Jack?” Nope Gwendolyn does not like the name Jack. It’s Ernest she must marry. Also, Ernest must be ‘interrogated’ by Lady Bracknell to see if he is suitable to marry Gwendolyn. Ernest/Jack lives at on a tony square, although not the fashionable side. He smokes and that’s good because one must occupy one’s time. The thing that cancels the deal is that Ernest does not have any parents. They were lost. Lady Bracknell says: ‘ ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. ‘

It gets worse. When he was a baby, Earnest was left in a hand-bag at Victoria Station by mistake (explanation later in the play—don’t ask) and adopted by a rich gentleman and raised by him. Lady Bracknell is aghast: “A hand-bag!?!!!!”

Algernon goes into full Bunbury mode and goes to the country to meet Cecily and when he sees her he proposes. And the play goes from there.

The Production. Tim Carroll has directed a stylish production of The Importance of Being Earnest (although the fussy, silly business at the beginning of each act to augment James Smith’s lively piano music seems out of place with a play full of such wit).

Gillian Gallow’s sets for the three acts of the play are just sublime. Each act is set within several moveable frames. In Act I of Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street, the frames move backwards or upwards as the set moves forwards in a moving dance. Act II is the garden of the Manor House of Ernest/Jack in the country, in which rows of hedges are clipped to 90° precision, and not a leaf is out of place. Finally Act III is in the drawing room of the Manor House with shelves upon shelves of colourless books etc. indicating the hugeness of the house. Elegance, wealth and taste are the watchwords for these three locations, and Gillian Gallow has illuminated it all beautifully in her sets.

Similarly, Christina Poddubiuk’s costume designs are stylish and richly created. Everyone is tastefully dressed but Algernon (Peter Fernandes) has a touch of the flamboyant about him. This is a man with no money who flaunts style as if he has lots of money. As Lady Bracknell (Kate Hennig) says of her nephew, Algernon, “Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?”

As Algernon, Peter Fernandes has a confidence in that ostentation. He naturally flips back the floppy sleeve of his dressing robe to pour tea. He makes the clothes work for him. And Fernandes knows the importance of seriousness in humour. As Ernest/Jack, Martin Happer plays him as a man to the manor born although he wasn’t born to it, but found. Still Happer has a wonderful physical ease with that upper class demeanor; pouring tea properly is a natural occurrence; dealing with a formidable presence as Lady Bracknell is a mix of concern and confidence. Ernest/Jack has the class to know how to ‘play’ Lady Bracknell without being obnoxious about it.

Much is said about the concern that Gwendolyn (Julia Course) will grow up to be like her mother, Lady Bracknell. One needn’t wait that long. Julia Course gives a performance that does echo Lady Bracknell: clipped, assured, arrogant, seemingly without humour, which makes her hilarious and kind of endearing. Rounding out the ‘lovers’ is Cecily (Gabriella Sundar Singh), Ernest/Jack’s ward. Gabriella Sundar Singh has a glistening curiosity, a wonderful confidence to use it and speak her mind, and a sense of impish wickedness when she thinks someone like Gwendolyn is trying to make a fool of her. But this is Wilde and Cecily and Gwendolyn are instantly close friends. Still Singh is watchful and quite compelling.

Finally, there is Kate Hennig as Lady Bracknell. We know so much about Lady Bracknell before she even steps foot in Algernon’s flat. She is formidable. She has a reputation that precedes her. She likes cucumber sandwiches, that Algernon does not hesitate to consume. And the number of formidable woman and men who have played Lady Bracknell, each bringing their own twist to it, can prove daunting when approaching the part. There is the first and fearless Dame Edith Evans who said “A Hand-Bag” with horror and elongated those three words to more syllables than any hand-bag deserved. Judi Dench just mouthed and whispered the words. William Hutt as Lady Bracknell, imperious, twisted ‘her’ head in slow, incremental turns until ‘her’ head looked down at ‘her’ own hand-bag resting on the divan—I think all that head turning took more than a minute. Maggie Smith as Lady Bracknell made a five-act opera out of every move and twerked her head so often and hard, one worried she might give herself whiplash. And Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell just looked aghast at the notion that anyone would be ‘found’ in a piece of luggage.  Yes, Lady Bracknell comes with a lot of baggage before she even steps foot on the stage.

For me, what Kate Hennig does in her performance of Lady Bracknell is simply revolutionary. She plays her as a real, breathing, prickly woman who has social climbed up to that level of society by marrying above what would be called her station, and she’s going to play that to the hilt. She knows all the rules, regulations and minutiae of society because she was desperate to ‘get into it.’ She feels she is above everybody, until everybody just keeps chipping away at her and brings her down a peg. Hennig tosses off the bon mots with delicious aplomb and seriousness. She too knows that comedy must be delivered with absolute seriousness or the joke is lost. Lady Bracknell has no sense of humour so does not realize it when people are razzing her. Which makes it all the funnier. When Ernest/Jack is able to reveal his true identity and that he in fact was a member of society with breeding, Lady Bracknell gives her consent for Ernest/Jack to marry Gwendolyn. Never mind that they are first cousins. Breeding is all, in-breeding is irrelevant.

Comment. The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s satire on the upper classes and their silliness regarding names, marriage, breeding, parentage, proper addresses, society, class distinctions, work, money and the minute ceremony of having tea. The production at the Shaw Festival, is a delight.  

The Shaw Festival presents:

Runs until: Oct. 9, 2022.

Running Time:  2 hours, 40 minutes

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