“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Oscar Wilde’s theatrical masterpiece, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest comedies in the English language.  Wonderful characters, dazzling dialogue spiked with witticisms like the example above, a labyrinthine plot with improbable twists and a sprinkling of romance – this Victorian ‘rom-com’ has it all.  It was first performed in London in 1895 and it has been delighting millions since then.

Enter W!LD RICE in 2009 with its gender-bending interpretation with an all-male ensemble, revealing new insights into Wilde’s comedy about courtship, hidden identities, and the foibles of high society.  The production caused a stir and won critical and popular acclaim.  After a sold-out three-week run, it went on to win three awards at the 2010 Life! Theatre Awards for Best Production, Best Supporting Actor (Chua Enlai), Best Costume Design (Frederick Lee) as well as nominations for Best Director (Glen Goei) and Best Supporting Actor (Ivan Heng).

So, if you did not get a chance to see W!LD RICE’s The Importance of Being Earnest in 2009, then please don’t miss the 2013 version!  Glen Goei is back to direct once again, and you will kick yourself if you miss his provocative ‘W!LD RICE’ spin on this comic masterpiece.

Without giving too much away, here is a synopsis:

Two friends, Jack and Algernon, regularly bend the truth to spice up their lives. Jack has invented a brother, Ernest, whom he uses to escape his dull country life (‘Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?’).

Algernon also decides to take the name ‘Ernest’ to cosy up to Jack’s beautiful ward, Cecily, in the country. But when an identity crisis spirals out of control, the previously separate worlds of town and country collide and delicious mayhem ensues. Thoughts of marriage and a happy ending must be put on hold until the inimitable Lady Bracknell can be convinced that the young men are worthy suitors.

The play is a satire of the Victorian era when intricate codes of behavior governed everything from communication to sexuality. The most important rules applied to marriage – always a popular topic in Victorian plays, and one that interested Oscar Wilde, who was married to a woman but sexually involved with men.

The play features an international cast including some of Singapore’s most acclaimed actors such as Ivan Heng, Hossan Leong, Chua Enlai, Brendon Fernandez and Crispian Chan.

They are joined once again by Daniel York from London and Gavin Yap from Kuala Lumpur. They were the original cast members from the 2009 production.  Joining them will be Lim Kay Siu who replaces Zahim Albakri as Rev. Canon Chasuble.  The actors will be dressed to the nines by fashion doyen, Frederick Lee.  There will also be interludes of live music performed by The Ensemble Dimension Players.

Why should you see ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’?  It is arguably Oscar Wilde’s best-known work, a comedy of manners that satirizes Victorian etiquette and customs.  It is done with wit and style that’s absolutely unforgettable.  Furthermore, the play is full of the most delicious quotations and examples of Wilde’s sparkling wit.  Here are a few to whet your appetite….

  • “I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.’
  • “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.’
  • “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”
  • “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain.”

And so on.  We asked Director Glen Goei to share his insights on The Importance of Being Earnest with us:

Why has W!LD RICE decided to restage ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in 2013?

Because of popular demand! And because so many people missed it the first time round.

When the play was first presented by W!LD RICE in 2009, there was some controversy, which resulted in W!LD RICE having its educational funding withdrawn after the production was made to carry an over-16 advisory. Have the powers that be become more tolerant this time?

We still live in a nanny state. So all our collaterals still carry an advisory! As if to give a warning to our sophisticated audiences that watching an all male cast could change their sexual orientation.

The British playwright, Alan Bennet, once said that The Importance of Being Earnest was the most perfect play. That it was completed there on the page and ‘there wasn’t much you could do with it.’ What kind of challenges does that present to you as a director?

I totally agree with Mr. Bennett. I don’t intend to change anything. It is in the interpretation and in our context here in Singapore that the play is given an added ironic twist.

You will be working with more or less the same cast of actors from the 2009 production, with maybe one or two changes. Is it going to be easier for both yourself and the actors, the second time round?

We approach this production with fresh eyes. The actors have all forgotten their lines (it has been four years) so they have to start from scratch. But at least it feels like seeing an old friend again.

What did you look for when casting the actors?

Comedy is difficult to do well and Wilde’s language and wit is even more difficult to handle.  So those were qualities I looked for when I was casting.

There is some debate about the play, that it is a very coded play about homosexuality. Is that something that you were very aware of coming into this production in 2009?

I had not been aware about this but I certainly heard Wilde’s voice loud and clear on reading the play again – in every character in fact. His views on marriage, class, hypocrisy, education and the church are clear and evident.

W!LD RICE’s previous staging of the show not only played to sold-out audiences, but also bagged several awards at the 2010 Life! Theatre Awards.  Is W!LD RICE aiming to win these awards again or maybe even more this time?

We never think about awards when creating our productions. But we do think about connecting with our audiences and making our work contemporary and relevant to them.

For audience members who will be seeing the play again in 2013, what’s new / different (without giving too much away!).

We will be featuring a brand-new quartet who have been hand picked, nurtured and mentored by the Tang Quartet. I’ve teasingly called them the Super Junior Tang Quartet because they are young and sexy!

At the end of the day, what do you hope the audience will take away from W!LD RICE’s The Importance of Being Earnest?

I would love the audience to walk out of the theatre if they are on cloud nine. Because for two hours, my cast would transport them to another world, make them laugh, forget their troubles and just be happy!

If Oscar Wilde was in the audience, what do you think he would say about W!LD RICE’s provocative version of his classic? And what would you like to say to him?

I think he would be terribly pleased, as he would never have imagined seeing a production of Earnest performed by an all male cast and in Asia!

The Importance of Being Earnest will be at the Drama Centre, National Library, from 10 April to 4 May 2013.  Running concurrently with the play will be staged readings of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde on 21 and 28 April 2013, 7:30 pm at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets for the readings are sold at SGD30.   For more information, please visit www.wildrice.com.sg and www.sistic.com.sg.