Review: The Importance of Being Earnest falters in sincerity

Wild Rice brings back The Importance of Being Earnest after a four-year hiatus (Wild Rice Ltd photo)Wild Rice brings back The Importance of Being Earnest after a four-year hiatus (Wild Rice Ltd photo)

There is no disputing the works of 19th-century author Oscar Wilde. Themes of social conventions, poetic justice and identity form part of the 118-year-old play that is “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

But Wild Rice’s second staging of Earnest which began its three-and-a-half week run Saturday at the National Library’s Drama Centre, does not quite seem to grasp the subtle nuances in Wilde’s text. Offering a physically-splendid interpretation of paradox but one lacking depth, not even an all-male cast starring Ivan Heng and constant zingers on social conventions can save this staging from posturing too much and emoting far too little.

Earnest is a re-staging of the same show by Wild Rice four years ago, with minimal changes. The all-male cast stayed and the suits kept as it was -- a sign, maybe, at the play’s timeless nature and relevance as the debate on gay rights continues in Singapore.

Earnest recounts the tale of John Worthing (played by UK/Singaporean actor Daniel York) admitting to best friend Algernon Moncrieff (played by Singapore thespian Brendon Fernandez) that he escapes the boring countryside by leading a double life as Ernest in the city.

John – we mean, Earnest -- tries to court Gwendolyn Fairfax (played by Chua Enlai) but a deceitful tale soon spins out of control when Moncrieff pretends to be Ernest to charm John’s young ward in the country, Cecily Cardew (played by Malaysian actor Gavin Tan). Mayhem ensues when the city and country cross paths and deceptions are soon exposed.

Don’t get the wrong impression: Earnest is a great play. It has a fantastic script, on-point physicality and excellent comic timing plus a strong ensemble propping up the energy throughout Wilde’s laborious text. But, this is what we have come to expect of a Wild Rice production – nothing less from a company whose specialty is in this area.

However, the staging just stops short of nuance, preferring to appease theatergoers with laugh-a-minute humour and overacting.

Actors impress, but not in excess

The play is filled with long and laborious interaction among characters. Wilde makes sure to pepper these instances with irony and satire. Daniel seems to get it, as he delivers his lines as John with wit as dry as possible. In fact, his deadpan tone is so spot-on that he would not be out of place if he muttered a string of curses under his breath.

Unfortunately, some interactions fell flat. John and Gwendolyn never really hit it off, their romance a tad directed and the chemistry, sorely missing. Moncrieff and Cecily are only slightly better off, not helped as much by the acting from Brendon Fernandez.

At first glance, Brendon seems perfect for the role of a conceited, self-absorbed Algernon Moncrieff. His strapping physique and smouldering smirk belie the mischief of Moncrieff.

Take two minutes and he immediately becomes a gimmick: ending off every line with the same “hand on hip” pose, mistaking inflection for pause and piling on some cringe-worthy overacting. This could be the fault of the director’s instruction but a look at Brendon’s body of work in theatre and television points out the worrying fact that he uses the same voice in every role he plays.

A standout thought is Hossan Leong for his portrayal of Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. Among the four male actors who were cast in female roles, Hossan was the most believable. He was not overtly camp or effeminate, but the moment Hossan appeared on stage, the daintiness he gave to Miss Prism made one forget he was male.

This is something early reviewers seem to miss: the all-male cast makes male actors act in female roles, but should they be delicate or brusque in delivery? If differences in femininity were deliberate, they were not fleshed out enough.

That being said, the all-male cast is a brilliant casting choice in Singapore, where the question of sexual identity and orientation is still very much a source of debate. If so much trouble has been made to highlight the all-male cast and to promote themes of marriage equality on government-sanctioned television, then why did no couple kiss on stage? The lack of gumption in that finality is disappointing.

The masterful stage set-up for The Importance of Being Earnest (Wild Rice photo)The masterful stage set-up for The Importance of Being Earnest (Wild Rice photo)

Gorgeous set, appreciative audience

It is not all bad.

The Ivan Heng-designed set is gorgeous and masterful. Six triangular pillars divide the play’s three acts, a pillar’s face for each scene. The black-and-white design and austerity in the number of props serve almost as a mockery of the colourful dialogue on stage. However, scenes are enacted upstage so much that the actions get too easily washed out by the harsh lighting and panel patterns.

The audience on gala night was generally appreciative but, maybe due to the presence of corporate sponsors and media, laughter was few and far in between on the first two acts. The play only really came alive in the final part of the second act, when roars of laughter were heard in a tightly-coordinated bickering scene. But it was too little, too late.

While Wild Rice must be applauded for its sheer number of productions and sponsors amassed over its 13 year-existence, one must wonder if ArtsEngage’s recent manifesto could help a veteran theatre powerhouse like Wild Rice that may have settled into the new normal of preaching to the choir. If arts wants to be political, something as bold as Earnest should unsettle the religious right more visibly.

Instead, the message of identity is nestled too comfortably in the play, and the audience of such theatre is predominantly gay-friendly, judging by the crowd on gala night. Could Earnest’s message have been more pointed and thus, heartfelt, had it expected a more centrist crowd to buy tickets?

Make no mistake: Wilde's writing in Earnest is spot-on, with a wry sense of Irish, after-the-fact humour. Much like the camaraderie from the actors off-stage, we just wish there was earnestness in the delivery by Wild Rice.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs from now till 4 May at the Drama Centre Theatre, with shows from Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, and weekend matinees at 3pm. Please visit Sistic for more details and to purchase tickets.

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