Review: The Importance of Being Earnest is witty, and never dull, at Shaw Festival

Peter Fernandes as Algernon Moncrieff and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest.Emily Cooper

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  • Title: The importance of being serious
  • Written by: Oscar Wilde
  • Director: Tim Carroll
  • Actors: Peter Fernandes, Martin Happer, Julia Course, Gabriella Sundar Singh, Kate Hennig
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theater
  • Town: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Until October 9, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: None

line for line, The importance of being serious is undoubtedly the wittiest piece ever written.

The downside to Oscar Wilde’s 1895 script being so damn witty, however, is that it can often be production-draining – like scrolling through a Twitter thread dedicated to clever epigrams for two and a half hours. He can wear.

The charming new production from director Tim Carroll Serious on the main stage of the Shaw Festival, however, does the opposite: it builds and builds.

It might take a full act to really find its feet, but after that it has excellent comedic momentum, culminating beautifully in the ludicrous reveal of the coincidences that tie its absurd plot together.

Algernon and Jack, the two wealthy and idle young men at the center of the town louse/country louse intrigue, can often seem like mirror images of each other – just like their two love interests, Gwendolyn and Cecilia. But here, the foursome stand out in both casting and characterization.

Peter Fernandes, in an amiable and light-hearted performance, gives us a city-dwelling Algy who is careless about everything but his cucumber sandwiches, while Martin Happer is dead serious, austere and impassive, like Jack, a country gentleman which ends up in a pickle.

The dilly is this: Jack would like to marry Algy’s cousin, Gwendolyn (Julia Course), the daughter of Lady Bracknell (Kate Hennig), but there are two major obstacles.

The first is that he has no birth parents on hand – just the purse he was found in at a train station as a baby by a very wealthy man many years ago.

The second is that Jack operates under the name Ernest when in town – a name he gave to a fictional urban outcast of a brother he invented as an excuse to leave town – and, in As it happens, Gwendolyn loves it as much for that name as anything else.

It’s in Jack’s country estate where the plot ingredients all combine to produce a comedic chemical reaction after Algy takes a train, impersonating Jack’s fictional brother, Ernest, in order to woo Jack’s ward, Cecily (Gabriella Sundar Singh), and Gwendolyn shows up. shortly after.

New Siminovitch Prize winner Gillian Gallow has designed a truly delightful setting for this part: a garden with a maze of hedges behind it that turns every entrance and exit into a visual delight. Figures first appear only in the form of an umbrella or a hat or get lost on their way out (in the particular case of Ric Reid’s oft-fluttering Canon Chasuble.)

The difference in height between Course and Sundar Singh is showcased in the hurdles as well as when the two women – who are both in love with an Ernest who does not really exist – face off over tea.

It’s a strength of Carroll’s production that the women and men seem so well matched in spirit. One of Wilde’s funniest speeches that struck me during this viewing was Gwendolyn’s about her ever-off-stage father, Lord Bracknell.

“Outside the family circle, dad, I’m happy to say, is totally unknown. I think it is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper domain of man. And certainly, once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties, he becomes painfully effeminate, doesn’t he? And I don’t like that. It makes men very attractive.

It’s utter nonsense and full of truth – and Course does a great job of pivoting between all of its paradoxes.

It is Hennig as Lady Bracknell who stands out from the production, however. Too many managers Serious take Jack’s annoyed claim that she’s a “Gorgon” on the face of it, when she’s, in fact, the most sane of the bunch. Hennig isn’t afraid to play the villain when needed, but her blunt, no-nonsense manner is endearing in its own way.

Hennig sets the bar so high that you can’t help but notice that other performances aren’t quite as perfect. But the only real stumble in the series is that first act – which is held back by overly restrained design, in set and costume, and an overemphasis on character poses.

It’s always surprising to learn that The importance of being serious was first criticized as being about nothing – when it seems, some 125 years later, a much more piercing critique of society than Wilde’s melodramas which have at their center social issues that now seem irrelevant.

Serious discussions about property and income seem to break taboos.Emily Cooper

Indeed, serious discussions about property and income seem to break taboos. In our current “era of surfaces”, we talk endlessly about the price of things, houses in particular, and very little about how wealth is actually accumulated and transmitted in our society.

This is not the case with Lady Bracknell, who questions Jack about every detail of his finances and is delighted to learn that Jack’s money comes from investments rather than land. “Between the duties expected during his lifetime and the duties demanded after his death, the land ceased to be a profit or a pleasure,” she says. “It gives a position and prevents keeping it.”

I could go on quoting the piece at length, but I’ll stop before this review turns into a tedious Twitter account.

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