By Sakunika Wewalaarachchi & Anirudh Krishnan
W!ld Rice’s The Importance of Being Earnest was superb; from the artistic set to the innovative costumes to the brilliant acting, W!ld Rice captured the heart and soul of Wilde’s nineteenth century masterpiece while suffusing it with a distinctive touch of their own.
Earnest is a farcical comedy satirising the onerous responsibilities of Victorian society. A prime example of the genre of ‘comedy of manners’, the play portrays a world that is stridently artificial. By trivialising marriage, the central theme of the play, it rejects the conventional concern of upper-class Victorian respectability for income and class. The firm preoccupation of the two female characters Gwendolen and Cecily with the name ‘Ernest’ is one of many ways in which Wilde satirises upper-class Victorian society. Through heavy use of irony and parody, the play strips bare the superficiality, hypocrisy and prejudice of the time.
An Oscar Wilde script is not one that can be mastered in a cinch – the distinguishing feature of the ‘comedy of manners’ remains its intricately crafted dialogue, rife with puns, put-downs, epigrams and all manner of witticisms that can only be successfully delivered with skilled pacing, rhythm and a keen sense of timing. On all fronts, the expert cast excelled at embodying the essence of the comedy of manners, and in delivering the pulse of Wilde’s satirical society with all of their idiosyncrasies and passions.
As an ensemble, the set, the casting and the costumes complemented each other to create a stylistic whole which emphasized the mechanisms of language as set in Wilde’s meticulously crafted verbal repartee. The minimalist set distracted no attention from the dialogue and delivery, whose wit and keenness were complemented by the sharpness of the black-and-white set and costumes.
A particularly unique feature of W!ld Rice’s performance was the all-male cast. By having male actors present female characters while dressed in crisp tuxedos, director Glen Goei and costume designer Frederick Lee succeeded in emphasising the performative aspects of the play, refocusing attention from set and costume to the critical aspects of the genre: the witty dialogue and its delivery. Thus, by adhering to the naturalistic style of performance whilst subverting other realist tropes, the burden of the performance fell largely upon the able shoulders of the cast, all of whom rose to the opportunity magnificently. Ivan Heng embodied the irascible Lady Bracknell heart and soul, dripping with preachy sarcasm and affected condescension. Hossan Leong was superb as the genteel and fussy Miss Prism; particularly heart-wrenching was his touching portrayal of a woman insecure and in love, which struck a chord with many in the audience. Chua Enlai and Gavin Yap struck a well- paced duet of pretentious and unquestionably feminine contentiousness; the subtle verbal cat-fights, the affected eye-rolling and the girlish hair flipping certainly did Wilde’s Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew justice.
Particularly striking was the razor-sharp precision with which the cast members dispatched Wilde’s linguistic masterpiece, and all with excellent enunciation. Not a single cue was missed, and the impeccable timing of the deliveries combined with a touching emotional sincerity brought Wilde’s characters to life in an endearing and genuine way. Moreover, the male composition of the cast did not at all interfere with the authentic portrayal of Wilde’s female characters. It is interesting to note that the deep voices of the actors were used strategically to portray the female characters, particularly in Act 2 where Gwendolen and Cecily start arguing over who had truly won the heart of ‘Ernest’. Instead of playing the animosity to be completely subsumed, at one point Chua Enlai and Gavin Yap abandoned all pretence at a girly falsetto, and instead spoke in coarse, deep and markedly macho tones, only to cut short their argument at its climax due to the unexpected entrance of the butler, Merriman, played by the infallible Crispian Chan.
As a result of this move, the raw and visceral antagonism between Gwendolen and Cecily became highlighted before being wrapped up once more in a façade of good manners and ‘Will you pass the sugar?’ Here, the quick burst of emotional intensity was amplified by the coarseness of the actors’ voices which effectively drove home the force of Gwendolen’s and Cecily’s desires to the audience.
On their part, Brendon Fernandez, Daniel York, Lim Kay Siu and Crispian Chan were top-notch as Algernon Moncrieff, John Worthing, Reverend Canon Chasuble, and both Lane and Merriman respectively. They melded into the century-old Victorian psyche so securely the ethnicity of the cast did not pose any barrier to the delivery of this nineteenth-century classic. In point of fact, the best aspect of a flawless performance was the encapsulation of the quintessence of Wilde’s Victorian world (complete with cucumber sandwiches) by the W!ld Rice cast and their unfaltering energy that kept every line, gesture and expression sharp and fresh.
A particularly heartening aspect of W!ld Rice’s approach to the entire performance was the enduring connection that the cast and creative team made with the audience. By starting the performance with a string quartet playing lively pieces of classical music and members of the cast walking into the audience, and ending with heartfelt thanks from founder Ivan Heng and appreciation for sponsors and donors, W!ld Rice afforded the occasion an easy familiarity and sociability.
Altogether, it is little wonder that The Importance of Being Earnest clinched the numerous awards and accolades that it did. After its opening in 2009, the play won three Straits Times Life Theatre Awards for Production of the Year, Best Costume Design (Frederick Lee) and Best Supporting Actor (Chua Enlai), and was also nominated for Best Director (Glen Goei) and Best Supporting Actor (Ivan Heng). Sometimes in theatre, the simple yet elusive magic for a successful performance can largely be determined by the abilities of the performers to not merely act but rather to live through a script, with all the intensity and drive that we do in our own lives. Brendon Fernandez, Crispian Chan, Daniel York, Ivan Heng, Chua Enlai, Hossan Leong, Gavin Yap and Lim Kay Siu worked this magic with notable aplomb and had the audience at their mercy from start to finish.
Irrevocably Wilde and W!ld, The Importance of Being Earnest is an impeccable production not to be missed.