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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (article first published : 2000-04-17)

If you were fortunate enough to be able to take a handful of cut diamonds and place them in good light you would see how they sparkle with a dazzling force of their own. Or, should you feel more extravagant, throw them in the air and watch the shower of brilliance as they fall. On the other hand, put those same diamonds in a overdone setting, display them ostentatiously and you achieve a result that is brash, hyped and excessive.

Such is the quality of Oscar Wilde’s dialogue, Words and lines that resemble diamonds - clear and uncluttered with virtually each one a gem of observation or wit.

A controversial Irish-born dramatic, poet and humorist who was at his most productive as the 19h century drew to a close, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to prison for two years for having had a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. His rapier sharp mind made him the renowned wit of London literary circles and his plays and writings have stood the test of time.

His play The Importance of Being Earnest is being produced by Technikon Natal’s department of drama studies at the Courtyard Theatre until April 20 and marks another good presentation in this department’s list of successes over the years.

Whether you aim, as director Brian Pearce did, to drawn parallels between Wilde’s society and today’s South Africa or not, you cannot undermine Wilde’s language. The style, which I can only describe as akin to molten steel, itself forces a certain delivery. Perfect articulation, lucidity, a sense of superiority with a hint of camp and loads of tongue-in-cheek. It’s not so much what the characters do that make the play, it’s what they say.

This is not to say that the story is simplistic – two dashing young men of society occasionally duck their responsibilities and head for fun and enjoyment with more convivial company. The one invents a constantly ailing friend in the country while the other conjures up a profligate non-existent brother whose shenanigans draw him to London on a regular basis. Thabo Godide as John Worthing is the cast member who is most successful with Wilde’s lines with Bryan Hiles as Algernon Moncrieff a short head behind. These two have a professional working relationship on stage and there is a good energy between them which was also seen in the department’s recent production of Enemy.

Shanna Peterson is a spunky and determined Gwendolen Fairfax while Ntando Cele impresses as a charming and sincere Cecily Cardew. Lee Loveridge comes over well as Canon Chasuble and Clifford Hughes is suitably dignified as the manservant Lane although he battles for credibility with an ill-fitting tailcoat. Letlhogonolo Sechogela as the lugubrious butler Merriman produces a sense of presence that often takes professional performers years to achieve.

It was the performances by Debbie Lutge as the redoubtable Lady Bracknell and Georgina Kongikramer as the governess Miss Prism who has eyes for the Reverend that gave me the most problems. Back to the diamonds. These two characters were too ostentatious – in fact, “acted” too much and upset the balance produced by the rest of the cast. On the surface these are undeniably two fairly overt and strong roles but they both hide a dark secret and unless this is in the make-up of the characters, the dramatic dènouement of the play is lost.

Susan Donaldson-Selby’s set was ill-fitting and needed more embellishment for the times. One appreciates that a large budget would be required to do proper justice to the décor of the era but if this is not available, it is preferable to create an impression. Attention to small detail was required, such as curtains not fitting on rails and - unless there was some Freudian reason for it, which I missed – all three locations had the same centre table with the same tablecloth and covering.

However, I really liked the painting of the floor. Even as close as I was sitting, it gave the impression of a deep-pile carpet and went on to work well in the other two scenes. Ruebrecht Designs for the costumes were effective, particularly Lady Bracknell’s first outfit.

All-in-all, it’s an enjoyable production with Wilde’s outrageous and hilarious dialogue still pulling in the laughs a century after it was written.

The production runs until April 20 at the Courtyard Theatre, Mansfield Road with shows at 19h00. Tickets R10 (R6 students and pensioners). Book at Computicket or at the Courtyard Theatre on (031) 204-2532. The production is suitable for school audiences, and matinee performances can be arranged in consultation with the theatre manager.




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