First published in The Times, Monday March 9 2020
Creating a truly original production of Oscar Wilde’s great comedy is no easy task. Its very familiarity is a major part of its popularity. Much of the dialogue is so axiomatic that you can almost hear the audience pre-empting the actors.
Lu Kemp, the artistic director at Perth, makes a virtue of that prior knowledge, deftly wrong-footing our expectations for how certain scenes should be played and particular lines spoken, at times confounding them entirely. Her gleeful reimagining of Wilde occasionally skirts close to parody but it is invigorating.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The first surprise comes with the modest number of acting credits in the show: a mere five as opposed to the usual eight. This requires increasing volumes of doubling, notably in act two, when the production’s tone verges on out-and-out farce. It wouldn’t work so well if the choreography wasn’t so tight, and if the actors weren’t so versatile, as adept with their comic timing as they are with the rapid-fire changes of costume. At times, when the full ensemble is on stage, it is easy to forget that there aren’t more actors waiting in the wings. It is a nifty idea for a play that is partly about duplicity and assumed identities.
The most prominent member of the cast is Karen Dunbar, who succeeds in offering glimpses of humanity behind Lady Bracknell’s usually rigid certitude. Every so often the façade gives way to a nasty burst of temper. Yet the stumbling way in which she attempts to recover her poise when she hears the extent of Cecily’s (Amy Kennedy) financial prospects is oddly touching.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The other performances are equally well crafted. Grant O’Rourke, playing Algernon, and every inch the debonair Wildean fop, manages to deliver some of the play’s best-known epithets as if they were off-the-cuff. He contrasts nicely with Daniel Cahill’s buttoned-up Jack while Kennedy and Caroline Deyga spar formidably as Cecily and Gwendolen.
Jamie Vartan’s gorgeous set of polished floors and impractical furnishings chimes perfectly with Wilde’s line that “style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Not every one of Kemp’s innovations hits the spot, but for the most part this fresh take works wonderfully well.