Leura Everglades Garden January 23
In the food business dessert chefs are a big noise. The aesthetics of the sugar-hit often trump the substance of the main course. In the literary and theatrical worlds Oscar Wilde has been seen as a master of both main courses and sweets, and probably no work contributed so heartily to his dessert reputation as The Importance of Being Earnest. Ostensibly it is a triumph of wit for wit’s sake: a comedy with no spine; layers of cream with no cake. But that is to miss the piercing satire, and this combination of wit and satire was hugely influential on writers ranging from Tom Stoppard to PG Wodehouse. Indeed it is hard not to see the relationship between Algernon and his man Lane as anything other than the prototype for Bertie and Jeeves.
Were that all Wilde had done we are already talking about a sumptuous feast rather than a butterfly cake, but more than that he created arguably the funniest play ever written, meanwhile pricking the balloon of Good Society with a host of barbs, and while creating, in Lady Bracknell, one of the defining roles of not just Wilde’s era, but any era.
When this Sport For Jove production, directed by Damien Ryan, opened at Bella Vista Park Farm in advance of its run at Leura Everglades, the reviews and reports from people in whose opinion I would lay some confidence were in general agreement: Ryan had, for once, lost his light touch, and shoehorned sight-gags and business into a play that didn’t need them, while the cast shouted and over-acted. Only Deborah Kennedy’s reputation came out unscathed in a triumphant turn as Lady Bracknell.
The degree to which the play improved between the runs, or to which it better suits the Leura venue, or to which my perspective is simply at odds with those who were underwhelmed at Bella Vista is impossible to gauge: perhaps all three play a part. Whatever the case what I witnessed last night was a dazzling realisation of Wilde’s brilliance, augmented with a little virtuosity of Ryan’s own.
The slapstick choreography between Lane (James Lugton) and Algernon (Aaron Tsindos) at the outset is a riot, and thereafter the chortling never ceased until the end. Ryan has assembled an ideal cast, among whom Claire Lovering’s lustful Gwendolen and Eloise Winestock’s Cecily were particular joys, the latter going into paroxysms of revulsion whenever she heard that “Ernest” might actually be “Jack”. Kennedy ruled the stage with an iron countenance, and delivered the endless quotable lines – “Come on, Gwendolyn, we have already missed five, if not six trains! To miss any more might expose us to comments on the platform.” – with delicious authority. A special mention must be made of Anna Gardiner’s period costumes, which lent the production a sumptuousness that is almost mandatory if Wilde’s sniping at decadence is to carry weight. Had he been there I think he would have chortled happily with the rest of us, and found little that was at odds with his intentions.