REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde – Ridiculusmus

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. In its satirical way, though, it’s not so trivial at all, even as it appears farcical. Yes, the story is about two men who lie about their identities to get out of numerous obligations, but in his criticism of a certain social strata, Wilde is effectively calling out the people sitting in the audience. And with its clockwork like structure, in some ways it’s really a Serious Comedy for (or about) Trivial People.

Back in 2011, the Melbourne Theatre Company produced a star-studded production of the play, with director Simon Phillips recreating his 1988 production, reuniting some of his original cast with some new theatrical stars like Christie Whelan-Browne and Toby Schmitz. This was a gorgeous rendering of the play in full, savouring Wilde’s delicious language and turning up the tension of his finely-tuned plot with some incredible physicality and top-notch performances.

A few years earlier, Ridiculusmus (Jon Haynes and David Wood) had staged a two-man version of the same play as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. The pair have divided their time between the UK and Australia ever since, challenging the shape and dynamics of stage craft with some strange theatrical concoctions indeed. Their productions are always a wonderful mix of physical performance and word-play, which are the main strengths they bring to Wilde’s classic play of nine characters.

Yes, in this production, which I’ve heard talked about in the fourteen years since it first appeared in Melbourne (it has travelled the world before and since, last seen in Germany in 2011), Haynes and Wood perform every character in the play. And as the plot twists and turns, the number of characters on stage at any one time increases and the two actors have a lot more on their plates than cucumber sandwiches.

Early on, there’s a lot of delight to be had in the anachronisms and the theatrical inventiveness. The actors appear to change lighting states themselves and play modern music to set various moods and scenes. I went into the show expecting lots of quick changes, but then they pull the rug out by doing slow changes and one you’re used to that rhythm, some mind-boggling swaps from butlers to Bracknell.

A lot of the laughs come from Wilde’s original play, though, and after a while, the stage trickery becomes a little more predictable. Haynes and Wood try to change things up – there’s some puppetry at one point, but eventually the humour that came from the two of them juggling multiple characters dissipates. The longer it went on (opening night ran almost two and a half hours, with an interval), the more I wished I was watching the full play and revelling in Wilde’s witty dialogue.

Haynes and Wood have been together as Ridiculusmus for thirty years and this production is fifteen years old. I wonder how it was received as part of the Comedy Festival in 2006 and whether the fact it was now programmed at the Malthouse meant I went in with different expectations. I imagine the actors’ performances can only be that much stronger, but the conceit itself slowly wore itself out over its lengthy running time.

Earnest isn’t an old play that needs much justification to revisit it. The satire still lands, the jokes still work and because Wilde plays with a lot of subtext because of the time in which he wrote it, it feels much more modern than it really is. Part of the play is about gender roles and how society sets its expectations of men and women. 

Given the queer theatrical landscape in Melbourne – a world of Sisters Grimm and Little Ones, this Ridiculusmus production feels a little undergraduate and more than a little quaint. I enjoyed myself, but really wondered what Little Ones might have done with Wilde’s play – given their history of adapting some of his short stories into beautiful theatrical gems.

Photos by Pia Johnson