JUDI Crane is justly famous for her rendition of the line, “a handbag?” when she played Lady Bracknell some years ago in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Theatre 3.
Now Crane returns to the scene, but this time as director of Oscar Wilde’s famous play. Comparisons will be unavoidable as Karen Vickery performs the line and acts out one of the most enduring comedies in the English language repertoire.
Subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” it was Wilde’s last play and was first performed in 1895. Just three month after first night, Wilde was arrested for “gross indecency.
It’s not the first time Crane has directed for REP – 10 years ago she did Marsha Norman’s play “‘Night, Mother” – but this is a much more famous play which she approaches, she says, “with fear and trepidation as it’s one of the greatest plays on earth.”
“I’ve tried to give it a young sense,” Crane tells Citynews, “even though it’s on a 19th-century style set, everybody’s young.”
But as we agree, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, we know from the text that Cecily is almost 18 and hasn’t come out in society yet but that Gwendolen has, so she could be 20. Jack is 29 so if Algernon is his younger brother, then that makes him perhaps 25 or 26, making Lady Bracknell in her mid 40s, “not 87,” as Crane says, and not necessarily a battle axe to be played by a bloke in the way Geoffrey Rush did it. On the contrary, as Crane sees it, there is much in the text which shows how women were forced to make good marriages, manipulate men, Gwendolen even suggesting that it is domestic tendencies in men that make them “so attractive.”
Although the play seems quintessentially light and frothy, avoiding the serious moral undertones of his earlier plays (Crane excepts “Salome”, which was never done in England) and heading straight for a kind of satire that in her view, “it goes too close to the jugular” in its presentation of an upper-class society that never did accept him, complete with inept clergy, lying, cheating and indolence. “It must have been awful in a glittering audience to have seen yourself on stage, it must have been devastating.”
All the same, she is not directing it as heavy satire and, remembering that Oscar Wilde was by training a classics scholar, she notes that his fantastical writing owes much to ancient Greek comedy, with its stock characters and its improbable coincidences in plot.
Although she is having a great deal of fun with the more experienced cast members like Vickery and Jordan Best, who plays Miss Prism to Mark Bunnett’s Canon Chasuble, she’s really enjoying her young actors.
“The kids are gorgeous,” Crain says of her cast of mostly young unknown actors, although Miles Thompson played in “The Book of Everything.” The other ingenues are Kayleigh Brewster, who’s just arrived UK on a working holiday playing Gwendolen, Jessica Symonds as Cecily and John Brennan as Jack. “The boys are quite physical, youngbloods, especially Algy, who is hyperactive,” she says, adding that his piano playing is truly appalling.
Those in the audience who know and love the play will know exactly what she means.
“The Importance of Being Earnest”, by Canberra REP, at Theatre 3, Acton,
Preview February 19, 8pm, season runs February 20 to March 7. Bookings and all details to to canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.