Arts / Earnest importance of the right accent

John Worthing JP (Yalin Ozucelik) and Algernon (Nathan O’Keefe) in “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Photo by Shane Reid.

John Worthing JP (Yalin Ozucelik) and Algernon (Nathan O’Keefe) in “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Photo by Shane Reid.

PROFESSIONAL accent coach Simon Stollery astonishes me in the first minute of our interview.

“No, no, I’m not English,” he laughs, “I was brought up on the central coast of NSW – in Gosford.”

“The rest of the family don’t speak like me, but I have equated articulate speech with the kind of character I wanted to be.”

Good, because Stollery has been engaged by the State Theatre Company of SA director Geordie Brookman to whip actors such as Nathan O’Keefe and Nancye Hayes into shape for Oscar Wilde’s scintillating comedy, “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

“I have lots of other accents, but I don’t necessarily have them on tap,” he tells me. Last year he had to coach two actors in Sudanese accents, a tall order.

I ask Stollery what he thinks of the theory that Australian actors don’t have a good ear for accents, especially American ones.

“I think it’s the opposite,” he replies. “I think Australians are far more adept at doing an American accent than the other way round.

Stollery very nearly baffles me with technicalities. You can teach accents phonetically, or by sound shifts, or by placement – what’s happening with the mouth, lips and jaw.

Most important is the application of energy. In teaching an Australian accent you coach actors to have a fairly immobile jaw and lips. “I feel like a ventriloquist,” one actor complained.

Trained in acting at Theatre Nepean, Stollery quickly realised he had an almost obsessive love of accents. Then after filling in for an accent coach friend, he studied voice at NIDA and was on his way.

Before his time, NIDA students all sounded uppity, but with the development of the Australian film industry, actors – he cites the late John Hargraves – had to be taught how to speak their own accent well.

Stollery has been hard at work teaching the actors in “Earnest” how to speak Received Pronunciation English.

“It’s heightened language, you wouldn’t do a David Williamson play with RP, so you don’t do Oscar Wilde in an Aussie accent,” he says.

Actually, he’s teaching “Advanced RP” for “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and with the energy level necessary for Oscar Wilde, it’s not necessarily the standard British English you hear today. Stollery enthuses to me about wonderfully clipped words, stopped ‘r’s, and restrained “y” endings.

But how will Nancye Hayes say “a handbag?” in Lady Bracknell’s famous scene?

“Geordie’s made some brilliant directorial choices around her lines that give quite a different reading,” he replies.

Alas, he agrees, the “Macquarie Dictionary” may be right that accents change with use. Still, there have to be standards and there is no way he’ll allow his students to say “noo” instead of “new”. That’s going much too far.

“The Importance of Being Earnest”, The Playhouse, August 19-23, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

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