There’s nothing quite like the warm, supportive atmosphere of a college-majority crowd at a college play. The opening night audience of Newman’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest fed the energy of the performers, such that an already peppy play was bouncing off the walls in a way that was wonderful to watch.
The most prominent stylistic choice in this production is the heavy use of physical comedy and pantomime delivery. Director Erin Connellan has opted for a tone that is crowd-pleasing, but doesn’t always allow for the subtle sarcasm and witty banter in Oscar Wilde’s text to shine through.
Jack Bennett’s portrayal of Algernon is unusual, with exaggerated facial expressions and unremitting twitching reminiscent of Martin Short’s Mad Hatter in the 1999 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Like Short, Bennett certainly has a gift for physical comedy but it is somewhat overbearing and distracting at times. Opposite Bennett, Ryan Bentley’s Jack is pompous and commanding but also perfectly silly and shallow. The two work well together.
The strongest scenes are those featuring Gwendolen and Cecily, played by Stephanie Pidcock and Millicent Kavanagh respectively. Their interactions are more restrained, which effectively brings the cattiness and sassiness in the script to the fore. Rather than bombarding the audience with slapstick and amplified emotions, this style of delivery allows the audience to enjoy the characters’ simmering jealousy and social anxiety underneath the pretentious upper class poise that the play ridicules so well.
Lady Bracknell is performed by Josh Murray, following in the footsteps of Geoffrey Rush, David Suchet and Stephen Fry. These big names seem to have set a trend recently of performing the role in drag, and I personally love it. Murray is majestically comical and convincingly terrifying.
A string quartet playing live onstage is a nice touch. The original score by Joshua Chang suits the feel of the production and does well in punctuating jokes in addition to providing atmospheric set-change music. However, while it is wonderful to be able to have full view of the musicians as they play, it also detracts slightly from the performance when musicians start to slouch, look around the theatre and naturally react to the action onstage when they are not playing. This isn’t too much of an issue though, and the musicians certainly do an excellent job of integrating their sound with the performance.
Newman College’s strong cast does justice to Wilde’s farcical exuberance, but the dialogue could be better paced throughout and the physicality toned down. Wilde’s humour is in the snappy banter of his characters, and it doesn’t require a great deal of embellishment to be enjoyed. Of course, comedy is subjective and this production’s boisterous and joyfully hammy take on The Importance of Being Earnest may actually be preferable for some. This is a respectable, high-energy production that certainly entertains.
Newman College’s The Importance of Being Earnest played in the Guild Theatre, Union House, the University of Melbourne from July 29 to August 1.