The Importance of Being Earnest
A legend of the Australian stage and one of our rising stars join forces in Oscar Wilde’s sparkling comedy. They spoke with Peter Burdon.
“A handbag!” cries Nancye Hayes, uttering one of the many immortal lines in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest, Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Hayes is absolutely delighted to get her experienced hands on the choice role of the formidable Lady Bracknell, and she’s just as happy to have acquired a new relative in the person of Nathan O’Keefe, who plays Algernon Moncrieff, Lady Bracknell’s nephew, a twenty-something bachelor who is living high in all the most fashionable circles.
Wilde’s razor-sharp witticisms likewise trip off Algernon’s tongue. "Music is a great difficulty,” he says with a toss of the hand, “You see, if one plays good music, people don't listen, and if one plays bad music, people don't talk."
The Importance of Being Earnest was a triumph when it premiered in 1895, though little was Wilde to know that within a few months, he would be sent to prison for his homosexuality, reviled and spat at in the streets. The season was cut short, and productions of his other work ceased, yet the strength of his work was such that within a few months of his death in 1900, Earnest was again performed in London, and his theatrical writings have been both popular and influential. But The Importance of Being Earnest remains his greatest triumph.
“It’s just the most wonderful play,” says Hayes. “I’ve seen it many times with so many great people, and I suppose I’ve always hoped a production would come along, so when Geordie Brookman asked me, I didn’t hesitate. In fact, since I signed on my only worry has been about how to say ‘A hand-bag?’ in the scene with Jack.
For those who don’t know, Lady Bracknell meets a friend of Algernon’s, John Worthing, whom she eyes up as a prospective suitor for her daughter, Gwendolen, only to find that he was abandoned as a baby, left in a handbag in the cloak room of a railway station. Lady Bracknell is horrified and proclaims, ‘To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.’ Line upon line, it’s a brilliant scene.”
Securing Nancye Hayes for the role is certainly a coup for State Theatre. One of Australia’s greatest stage actors, her career spans more than fifty years, and Adelaide has a special place in her heart.
“I’d had some work with the great J.C. Williamson company in the early 60s, then I got a big break in 1967 when I was cast in the lead in Sweet Charity, and I still remember the performances in Her Majesty’s Theatre,” she says.
She’s had an unbroken connection with music theatre ever since, as a performer, choreographer, and director - and locals still rejoice at her wonderful depiction of Mrs Lovett in State Opera’s Sweeney Todd during its first Australian production. She started in straight theatre in the 1970s, and that, too, has seen many great performances in Adelaide and around Australia.
The opportunity to work with Hayes was one of the many attractions of the role to Nathan O’Keefe. He’s emerged as one of Australia’s most versatile actors, winning the Adelaide Critics Circle Individual Professional Award as long ago as 2010, and with talent that takes him from children’s theatre—including a season with Windmill Performing Arts on 42nd Street—to Shakespeare and all points in between. “I’ve done quite a bit of comedy,” he says, “but nothing as sophisticated as this.
I really enjoyed The Comedy of Errors with Bell Shakespeare and State Theatre last year, but Earnest is just so sophisticated, and it’s so beautifully written, and besides, I get to act with Nancye Hayes!” He does admit to being relieved that he doesn’t have any real aunts quite as frightening as Lady Bracknell. “She’s certainly quite a piece of work,” he says with a smile, “but I’d better not say any more.”
Ailsa Paterson, who created the eye-popping costumes for last year’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), has taken on the mighty job of designing the production. Lady Bracknell, whose hats full of flowers and feathers have been the delight of many a costumer in days gone by, is guaranteed to have an exciting wardrobe. “I’ve had the fittings,” says Hayes, “and Ailsa’s promised me that I won’t be disappointed! It’s like everything about this production. I just can’t wait.”
The Importance of Being Earnest plays from July 25 - August 16, 2014 in the Dunstan Playhouse. Bookings at Bass