Backstage story – The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde


Another interesting Backstage with the Auckland Theatre Company.  (I sat next to a teacher who is on sabbatical for the year. He’s intern-ing with them for this production, furthering his skills in design and technical implementation.  Watch out next year kids! It’s going to be awesome.)

The night was MC’d by Colin McColl, ATC’s Artistic Director and director of this iteration of “The Importance of Being Earnest“.  He last directed it 20 years ago and is relishing the opportunity to look for new things in the play.  He describes it as “delicious and treacherous”.  Oscar was commenting on aristocrats and theatre and literature and behaviour and society. The play is essentially about aristocrats behaving badly…so they’ve taken inspiration from celebs rolling out of nightclubs, being busted by the police etc. The characters ‘live expensive lives in a bubble where the real world is kept away by money and priviledge. It’s high artifice.’  The cast are ‘discovering subversive things under the text.’   Colin described it as a “voyage of discovery”.  He said the actors were being very generous and that “some of them have extraordinary takes on the characters.”

It’s based in a society in the midst of change.  John Parker, Set Designer, explored options for the set design…most of which won’t be on the stage.  On the night he said that they’d “taken off in a different direction” that day. I think they pack in (to the theatre) on the weekend so I hope he manages to pin something down!  Some of the phrases he was using to describe the process were: facades and pretense; photographers studio; shift; when people and roles merge; opulent trappings; gangster.  He’s being influenced by Colin who stated that he was “very anti sets at the moment.”  (He wants audiences to be aware of the mundane nature of the theatre space.)

Costume designer, Elizabeth Whiting, reiterated that the process was very organic.  She said that everyone starts from a common base for the play so that there is a logical progression to the ideas that are tossed around.  She finds a series of images that say something about the character to her. Costumes say a ‘lot of different things about the characters the actors have built’.  Gwendolyn’s costume has a Lady Gaga influence which I can’t wait to see. Elizabeth  is also using the green carnation in the costumes.

Someone asked how the cast/crew are keeping the play relevant given that they’ve created (or will create) their own world.  The immediate answer was “There are still snobs.” (Everyone laughed.)  ‘There are different levels even in classless society. You’re judged on your shoes, your home. They tend to stick together with old friends, they network in an area, don’t stray too far.’  (Which was acknowledged as true of most of us.)  Colin talked about the idea of double identity, double lives and how the characters appear one way to one group of people and another way to another group of people. He felt his role was to ‘define but not limit the possibilities of interpretation’. The play satirises things about our lifestyles as well. Cameron Rhodes (who was in the production 20 years ago) agreed.  ‘There’s a public and a private persona. Hypocrisy is being exposed in this play’  Laurel Devenie said that the characters were ‘constructing their own truth; choosing the next piece of reality to put on.’

Colin has deliberately chosen not to esplore the gay subtext in this production. Oscar included jokes for his friends which are interesting to know but they can’t be played for a comtemporary audience as the code words and references don’t exist in our society.  (Colin then did an amusing little sketch and mimed jumping out at the audience playing a Footnote* “this is funny because…this is funny because…”)  He said that all the characters were eccentrics – it’s a play full of complete nutters. (The cast however are a ‘joy to work with, fun to find rebelliousness.’)

The biggest challenge for the actors is the language. The sentences are quite long and need to be spoken with effortless energy.  It’s a modern style of performance using old language which Colin described as “tricksy”.  Ash Jones  (who I think is playing Algernon) said that ‘Shakespeare gives you the energy because of the poetry but Oscar is quite different.’  Elizabeth Hawthorne (Lady Bracknell) said that ‘the language is unto itself. The play is written from a particular outsiders viewpoint’ and that she had to ‘make that mine.’

Lisa Chappell (Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax) and Adam Gardiner (John (“Jack”) Worthing) acted out the engagement scene for us.  Adam had a nice line in heavy-lidded, slightly sleazy self confidence which is what I was thinking about as Parker and Whiting were describing the world these character live in. (I’m wondering if they’ll play out the sense of entitlement that I was thinking about as well.)  Lisa talked about how difficult it was to explore opposites. The characters are ‘trivial about important things. important about trivial things.’ It ‘goes against every fibre of her being, not to connect’.  She feels her character is quite cool.  (I think her performance in the tiny snippet was wonderfully self-absorbed; a wide-eyed “well of course you love me!”)

Final sum up – I think that people who are familiar with the script are going to be surprised by this performance. 

The importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Maidment Theatre 11 March – 03 April
Tickets $52-$57

*Footnote *hahaha* with trivial information…
Another question from the audience – New plays are often workshopped, was this play workshopped originally?  Colin said that no, it wasn’t but the Theatre Manager suggested that the original four act play was cut to three. Oscar cut the act out. There is apparently another act but that act not out of copyright so it isn’t performed much. He says that it ‘doesnt really matter’ as the play is ‘much snappier without it.’

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