Saturday, April 04, 2009

The courage to be true to oneself

Play Review
The Importance of Being Earnest

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, NLB
When: 25 March – 11 April 2009

What’s in a name? What a frivolous question, you might say.

Apparently a lot. And if you don’t believe me, you have to read Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

I had an opportunity to see this masterpiece of English literature enacted on stage last week. Director Glen Goei of W!ld Rice has brought it to stage in Singapore.

Here one is tempted to ask if there’s any correlation between the sonic proximity of the two wilds—Oscar (Wilde) and (W!ld) Rice. But I know I digress.

Most play buffs would know the plot of the play. Two friends in London, Jack and Algernon, invent a brother each, by the name of Ernest, to woo two beauties, Gwendolen and Cecily. This leads to a lot of confusion and heart-burning, bringing out the class conflict in addition to romantic dilemmas, but all the conflict is resolved in the final act, after it is established how the habit of writing novels (daydreaming about becoming a famous writer—how relevant even today!) leads to the ruination of the future of a child in a perambulator. The credit of unifying all the threads of the story gone haywire goes not to a mortal but a lifeless black leather bag. So, if the play is a success, the bragging rights can well go to the bag!

To freshen up an old text (whether for stage or film) for a new audience, there’s that old trick in the book: add a twist to the tale but hey, not in a literal sense.

This is what director Glen Goei has cleverly done here with the inclusion of an all male cast (and believe me, the wit is still intact). How could one not laugh (when watching the play) when this thought itself makes one chuckle. But there is a serious background note that needs insertion here (if you don’t read play booklets, you can skip this part): In his message, the director mentions that he was inspired to stage this play when more than a year and a half ago there was a campaign launched in Singapore to repeal 377A and ‘the response from the straight as well as gay community was lukewarm’.

From that standpoint, the play becomes a celebration of the creative contribution of the gay community. “They are a source of fresh new ideas which create new energies and opportunities for this society,” he says. “Yet they are labeled criminals and many have to deny their true selves and live under the oppression of assumed identities.”

In his time, Oscar himself was such a man who dared to be different and dared to be true to himself.

Since the play’s text or plot itself is not under scrutiny here (‘an excuse for Mr Wilde’s ventriloquism), the performances and production qualities warrant an appreciation. While the acts one and two were well laid-out, it was the play’s denouement in act three that was the most dramatic. Act one was a little stretched (you don’t need such an elaborate set up these days) but perhaps eloquence, not economy of words, was the norm when the play was originally written.

For me, it was Lady Bracknell (Ivan Heng) who rescues the act one. In similarly detailed act two, it was Miss Prism (Hossan Leong) whose clever lines and style of delivery soup up the act. Chua Enlai in Gwendolen Fairfax’s role is good but predictably so. Brendon Fernandez in Algernon Moncrief’s role looks the part but is clearly mismatched against the most competent Daniel York (playing John Worthing). Gavin Yap in Cecily Cardew’s part looks the most feminine (among all the competition I would say, and this should be taken as a compliment, and is advised to be shared with Gavin’s hair stylist) but shows a schizophrenic duality in her acting—nevertheless, making it into a delightful performance. Zahim Albakri in his short but sensible role as Rev. Canon Chasuble does not look out of place.

On the production side, the sets (the backdrops were aesthetically appealing) and costumes are appropriate and add to the atmosphere. The music by the T’ang Quartet is first rate.

If this play’s message is about being true to oneself, the audience shows it right then and there at the end of the play—with their clapping and catcalls.

Reviewer’s note: The play’s review has been written keeping in view Wilde’s advice—“In matters of grave importance (such as reviewing this play), style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

Published here:


Laju K. said...

Thanks for the review, Zafar, enjoyed reading it.

There can be a lot in a name, yes?

Reminds me of Shakespeare and his thought on the topic-- a rose would smell just as sweet if called by another name.

But I believe human beings do tend to behave differently if called by another name.


Anonymous said...

there is a lot in a name. alphabets correspond to numbers and kabbalah, as i have heard,not studied,has meanings assigned to every no. even hindu way attaches great importance to names,esp. the first alphabets of any.

jean genet would have approved of the all male cast!

Oscar Wilde is first on my list of people i want to meet when my time machine starts functioning...(ok, gotta go back and work on it again)