The Importance of Being Earnest

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

07/10/2023 - 04/11/2023

Production Details

By Oscar Wilde
Director: Jonathan Price
Producer: Nathan Mudge

The game’s up! John Worthing is Jack when he’s in the country and Ernest when in town. But he’s not the only player with a ploy, and some of his nearest and dearest are already two steps ahead.

Oscar Wilde’s greatest work for the stage comes to Circa for a season of blistering wit, mistaken identities, and human hypocrisy so keenly observed you’d think it was written yesterday. A troupe of Aotearoa’s finest comic actors take the stage like a jazz band tearing through a bop classic.

Colourful, naughty, subversive, smart and fabulous, this Earnest finds a new home in an age still obsessed with appearances. This is Wilde with his top button undone and false lashes on. This is for anyone who’s used a filter, lied in a job interview or exaggerated on their Tinder profile.

When everyone shouts ‘Be yourself!’, The Importance of Being Earnest asks, now where’s the fun in that?

7 Oct–4 Nov
Preview 6 Oct
Circa One
Tues – Thurs 6.30pm, Fri – Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm
$30 – $55

Post-show Q&A – Tuesday 10 October 6.30pm

Performance change: The evening performance on the 14th October has been moved to a 4pm Matinee.

John “Jack” Worthing, J.P.: Andrew Paterson
Algernon Moncrieff: Isobel Mackinnon
Gwendolen Fairfax: Ryan Carter
Cecily Cardew: Dawn Cheong
Lady Bracknell: Irene Wood
Miss Prism: Anne Chamberlain
Reverend Chasuble, D.D.: Peter Hambleton
Lane / Merriman / Understudy: Rebecca Parker

Director: Jonathan Price
Producer: Nathan Mudge
Production & Stage Manager: Anna Barker
Production Designer: Meg Rollandi
Lighting Designer: Isadora Lao
Sound Designer: Matt Asunder
Assistant Stage Manager: Kathy Keane
Set Constructor: Joshua Bourdeau
Graphic Designer: William Duignan

Theatre ,

120 minutes plus interval (estimate)

Classic play with a contemporary twist

Review by Sarah Catherall 13th Oct 2023

When Oscar Wilde wrote his satirical play, The Importance of Being Earnest, in the late 1800s, he featured heterosexual love stories because homosexuality was illegal at the time. The gay playwright would be delighted by director Jonathan Price’s contemporary twist of the plot: in the version he has staged at Circa Theatre, the protagonists are cast as same-sex couples and some of the gender identities are switched about.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a farcical play in which the protagonists concoct fantasy characters to escape the burdens of their obligations. Wilde attacked the social conventions of late-Victorian London, the triviality with which it treated institutions like marriage, and the power and control of its wealthy upper classes. [More]


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Wilde’s deliciously eloquent text delivered with fluency in a refreshing production

Review by John Smythe 09th Oct 2023

If you think Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) may be irrelevant now, consider Gwendolyn’s observation in Act Three: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” This instantly resonates with me as summing up the current election campaign: the frivolous photo-ops to feed popular media appetites; the way political pundits choose to judge performances in their post-debate discussions and opinion pieces. The more things change …

Ironically it is the sincerity of this Circa cast’s hyper-theatrical performances that makes each character’s artifice so compelling and stokes our earnest desire for truth – a concept constantly claimed, declaimed and disparaged throughout the play – to prevail at last, by way of untangling the webs of deceit they have woven. This is as it should be, given the arterial flow of irony throughout the play.

References to metaphor and allusion also abound, prompting us to consider what the play was written to satirise: the moral repression and societal imperatives of the Victorian age and the hypocrisy it engendered. Most important for Wilde was the illegality of homosexuality – “the love that dare not speak its name” – which obliged him to characterise his love stories as heterosexual; love stories hampered by those who claimed the right to allow or forbid a marital union.

While this Jonathan Price-directed production honours the text absolutely, including the pronouns, it judiciously casts the would-be lovers as same sex couples. Meg Rollandi’s Production Design – supported by Isadora Lao’s Lighting and Matt Asunder’s Sound – is set in the tree-quarter ‘round’, free of onerous set-changing requirements. Rollandi eschews slavish adherence to Victorian fashion and décor while capturing its essence in furniture items and individually expressive costumes (see the image above). The tantalising gathered curtains, upstage, deliver their promise splendidly in the final act.

With narry a bustle in sight and even Lady Bracknell in trousers, the absurdities of social propriety – which confront every generation in its own way – are amplified. Speaking of which, the only distracting anachronism is the radio mics every actor is obliged to wear, although not all sing songs. (If the dialogue is enhanced, I don’t notice it, which is also as it should be.) Each act opens with a solo song plucked from within the play’s 128-year lifespan to date.

Algernon Moncrieff launches the show with ‘More Than Anything’ (by Gerald Robinson), presaging his desire to be in love. It is not until Act Two that he first meets Cecily Cardew and makes her the object of his passion. He does this in the guise of Ernest Worthing, the persona his friend from the country Jack Worthing assumes in town, knowing her to be Jack’s ward.

As played by Isobel Mackinnon, Algie is as frisky as a puppy, leaping up on Jack in delight at his unexpected visit and even onto his lap at times. He is intensely devoted to Cecily and sometimes resorts to a snarling growl. A riveting performance.

Andrew Paterson exquisitely modulates the duplicity of libertine Ernest and responsible Jack while maintaining a deep commitment to superficiality. Despite being ‘best friends’ with Algie they know surprisingly little about each other. This conveniently allows Wilde to craft the necessary exposition regarding Jack’s double life and Algie’s equivalent delight in being a Bunburyist – Bunbury being the fictitious friend he must urgently leave town to visit when he wants to avoid a tedious social occasion.

Jack is in love with Algie’s cousin Gwendolen Fairfax and has come to London to propose to her, dropping by Algie’s flat in Half Moon Street enroute. This makes the imminent visit of Algie’s Aunt Augusta – aka Lady Bracknell – and cousin Gwendolen, for tea and cucumber sandwiches, extremely fortuitous.  

Irene Wood’s Lady Bracknell exudes assumed privilege, never doubting someone will pass or take a cup or plate to or from her floating hand, or judiciously place a chair as she assumes a sitting posture. Wood ensures Lady Bracknell’s famous epigrams land beautifully. The laughter they elicit suggests they are as fresh to a new generation as they are familiar and loved by seasoned theatre goers.

Idealistic Gwendolen is languidly embodied and fluently spoken by Ryan Carter. It is her declaration that her ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest, and the revelation that Cecily has been writing love letters to Jack’s brother Ernest long before she meets the man she believes to be him, that gives the play its name and drives the main plot forward.

Compulsive diarist Cecily, who flits from one task to another, is delightfully captured by Dawn Cheong. She knows the value of stillness in comic timing, as do all the cast. But lest we think these upper-class characters are utterly loveable, it should be noted they are not above snapping at the servants without consequence.

That said, Algernon is remarkably indulgent with his butler Lane’s proclivity for sequestering his quality champagne. Rebecca Parker’s immaculate Lane is surprisingly alert, given the imbibing implication. At the Manor House, Parker’s maid Merriman is more meek and subservient. She opens Act Three with an introspective and unfinished rendition of ‘Life on Mars’ (by David Bowie) while sweeping away fallen red roses – how’s that for a metaphor!

Lurking within another ‘forbidden love’ subplot, until her truth explodes in the dramatic denouement, is Cecily’s governess Miss Prism, intriguingly presented as a somewhat distorted personage by Anne Chamberlain. Her backstory is foreshadowed when she opens Act Two with a heartfelt ‘Secret Love’ from Calamity Jane.

Miss Prism must keep up appearances of propriety while contending with the not entirely unwelcome advances of pompous and avowedly celibate Reverend Chasuble, overtly rendered by Peter Hambleton. Their double act firmly underlines the moral hypocrisy Wilde is seriously satirising under the guise of trivial entertainment.

The whole cast meets the demands of Wilde’s deliciously eloquent text with a fluency that ensures the comical plot convolutions are clear. This refreshed production of The Importance of Being Earnest is welcome antidote to the fraught times with live in.


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