2 min

For farce

You need Earnest

SOCIETY TYPES. Fiona Byrne as Gwendolen and Diana Donnelly as Cecily. Credit: Xtra files

Oscar Wilde’s status as a gay icon (uneasy and unwilling as the bisexual Anglo-Irishman would have been about accepting such an accolade) blurs the fact that all his plays rely for their fun on the acceptance by players and audience of the rigid rules of heterosexual English society in the late Victorian period.

The success or failure of a production of The Importance Of Being Earnest depends on the faithful recreation of Wilde’s own world: that of aristocratic London in the 1890s and the English society types that peopled it. The characters and plot mechanics of this wonderful comedy are gloriously farcical, but in order for the comedy to succeed they have to be played absolutely and rigidly “correct.” Try to do it any other way and Wilde’s antic house of cards will collapse.

The Shaw Festival Company and veteran director Christopher Newton have spent decades reproducing realistic versions of English society dramas that deal in matters of the rigidities of class and the consequences of emotional repression. So we should be in capable hands at performances of The Importance in Niagara-On-The-Lake this summer; and generally we are.

The set design by Judith Bowden seems a little bland, but this is partly because she has decided to use costuming as the main visual excitement. And what costuming it is! Jack Worthing’s mourning clothes, Gwendolyn Fairfax’s and even Miss Prism’s dresses represent the best that the Shaw Festival can produce in design and construction. Of course, it seems only right that the twin pinnacles of costuming achievement should be the gorgeous Town And Country outfits made for Lady Bracknell.

While playing that outlandish Gorgon, as Jack Worthing calls her, Goldie Semple delivers some of the most famous funny lines in dramatic history without falling into the easy traps of parody or actorly plagiarisim. Semple succeeds in making Lady Bracknell both real and funny in the best tradition of farce.

As for the other women, Fiona Byrne grabs the dream role of Gwendolyn Fairfax and does it full justice, while both Diana Donnelly and Brigitte Robinson catch Wilde’s representation of them as thoroughly believable yet totally eccentric.

Evan Buliung matches the female half of the cast, playing the not-so-Earnest Jack Worthing. From his first appearance, Buliung hints successfully at the mixture of repression and licence that forms his character.

Unfortunately David Leyshon in the pivotal role as Algernon Moncrieff is disappointing and sadly miscast. One can imagine Leyshon’s Algy sitting around at a Bay St brasserie or even sipping a smart martini at Byzantium. But he doesn’t convey to the audience that mixture of cynicism, dissipation and endearing childlike mischief that his character should embody. Leyshon’s work in the production is an unfortunate example of the failure to reproduce the illusion of Victorian realism. As a result, his 21st- century Algy almost singlehandedly pulls down Wilde’s perfectly constructed house of cards.

Luckily for Shaw audiences, Oscar Wilde and the rest of the cast pull through.

* The Importance Of Being Earnest continues at the Royal George Theatre (in Niagara-On-The-Lake) until December; call 1-800-511-SHAW.