“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
With this mantra at its core, The Importance of Being Earnest is very silly. If it accomplishes nothing else, Oscar Wilde’s send-up of Victorian high society proves that style can, in fact, be substance. And the Shaw Festival’s production has an abundance of it.
Before the play begins, we are confronted with a series of ornate, concentric passageways—facades upon facades upon facades. As we open, these dance about giddily before framing an ostentatious drawing room. In her set, Gillian Gallow establishes that surfaces are paramount in this mannered world of meticulously maintained hedges and crystal decanters.
The story, however slight, is very charming. Though clever banter, we learn that Algernon (Peter Fernandes) and Jack (Martin Happer) lead double lives. To maintain the illusion of respectability, they have invented alter-egos to indulge their reckless appetites. Each is romantically entangled with a society woman—Gwendolen (Julia Course) and Cecily (Gabriella Sundar Singh).
Their engagements are complicated by a series of comedic obstacles. There is much confusion over identities as they all contend with the invented “Ernest.” And then there is Lady Bracknell (Kate Hennig), the overbearing matriarch who demands that propriety be upheld at the expense of any such frivolous distractions as happiness or affection.
As with the set, there is a deliberate artifice conveyed by the performances. None of these people would be the least compelling if not for Wilde’s delightfully clever wordplay and the absurd formality of the delivery. Mirroring the plot machinations, there is a playful symmetry in Tim Carroll’s direction. The cast flit and flop about ludicrously as their characters strive to maintain a veneer of sophistication. There is warmth in the spectacle and we can’t help but love them as enthusiastically as we laugh at them.
A notable surprise is Kennig’s interpretation of Lady Bracknell. Often played by a man in drag, she’s conventionally a caricature of the Victorian ethic. Kennig is decidedly restrained here, suggesting a relatively nuanced person amidst all the performative nonsense. Her attitudes remain properly ridiculous, but we glimpse an authentic struggle—a woman who has built herself up and will not allow her achievement to be undermined.
My favourite interactions in the play occur between Course and Singh. I love their hilariously quick-shifting dynamic—from uptight, careful appraisal, through barely masked derision, to an eventual union against the men bumbling before them.
And the outfits! Especially in the women’s hats and dresses, costume designer Christina Poddubiuk’s period attire conveys the lavish pageantry onto which these oh-so-fancy people desperately cling.
The whole affair is a trifle. Wilde was poking fun at aristocratic hypocrisy, though the satire is neither biting nor cruel. This cast and creative team have crafted a production that celebrates the play’s essential whimsy. It is a delight throughout.