Earnestly Yours: A Message from Ivan Heng

  • Ivan Heng
  • 5 February 2020

Dear Friends,

More than a decade after its premiere in Singapore, and after garnering rave reviews both here and at international arts festivals, The Importance of Being Earnest opens this Friday at WILD RICE’s new theatre in Funan.   

Never comfortable with resting on our laurels, we have reimagined this entire production for a new generation of audiences. Wong Chee Wai has designed a gorgeous new set, even as the award-winning Frederick Lee has outdone himself once again with his exquisite costume design for this show. At the same time, the original cast members of our acting company have been honing and re-calibrating our performances for the dynamics of our intimate thrust stage.  

While breathing new life into this classic, I found it inspiring to re-read my Artistic Director’s message from 2009, when we first staged this bold, brave incarnation of The Importance of Being Earnest.  (If I’m not wrong, it remains the only men-in-suits production in the history of this masterpiece.)

With all that we can see happening in the world today, we’re convinced that Oscar Wilde’s paean to tolerance and individualism is truer and more urgent than ever. 

Thank you for your support and we look forward to welcoming you to the show.

Earnestly Yours,
Ivan Heng
(a.k.a Lady Bracknell)

Here it is: 

Gentlemen and Ladies,

When asked what one could expect from “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Mr. Oscar Wilde said, “It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy… that we treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”  Indeed, his play is peopled with desperately trivial characters, manipulating and coping with a stifling, hollow system of rules to maintain their class distinction and privileges.  At least two of them invent alter egos to escape this hell and to pursue their dreams of love and romance. Through parody, irony and verbal paradox, Mr. Wilde adroitly strips off what Cecily calls “the shallow mask of manner” to reveal the hypocrisy and prejudice that prevailed in a society obsessed with appearance and propriety – one that was divided by class, money, gender and generation. Arguably, he was holding up a mirror to a society not very different from ours today.

When my “wicked” partner-in-crime, Mr. Glen Goei, proposed that I play his Lady Bracknell, I steeled myself to once more embark on a gender-bending diet to fulfil what I imagined to be a shared vision of a corseted and gowned gorgon, who saw the world through false eyelashes.  But Mr. Goei had other plans for Madam; his singular idea of playing her – and, for that matter, all the characters – in Mr. Frederick Lee’s bespoke suits, was at once exhilarating and frightening.

In the ensuing months of research, thinking, casting, publicising the show, designing the set (my thanks and apologies to Mr. Aubrey Beardsley) and presently rehearsing the play, we as a company have been inspired and guided by this masterstroke of Mr. Goei’s. When not applying ourselves to seriously preening and poncing about, we have asked ourselves:  whether an all-male ensemble would give credence to the popularly held belief that, in the ostensible absence of a strong plot and seemingly shallow characters, every character was essentially an excuse for Mr. Wilde’s ventriloquism; whether our “no cross-dressing” policy would illuminate the performance of gender as a construct of society (and who would care?); whether our “outing” of Mr. Wilde’s play would rob it of any of its closeted coded humour (all the more reason to share the joke?); would this have been the show he and his friends gleefully performed for each other at a soiree, in a more liberal and hopeful era? Ah well, the proof of the muffin is in the tasting, as they say.

One thing is for sure; we have had a great many laughs in rehearsal, and we have found it particularly meaningful to revisit Wilde’s play in the context of his creed of individualism and tolerance. Algernon tells us very early on in the play, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. This paradoxical observation of life is a recurring theme in Mr. Wilde’s body of work.  On this subject, Mr. Richard Ellman, Mr. Wilde’s biographer, wrote and I quote, “Along with Blake and Nietzche, he was proposing that good and evil are not what they seem, and that moral tabs cannot cope with the complexity of behaviour”.  

I believe our society would be a far better place to live in if we all could be a little less judgemental. To borrow from Mr. Wilde, we could be happier indeed if we treated all the trivial things of life (like having high tea with your friends) seriously, and all the serious things of life (like watching property prices plunge) with sincere and studied triviality.

Gentlemen and Ladies, we are honoured by your presence. We are touched that you have dedicated this time to our seriously trivial diversion. Thank you for joining us at our little soiree. We hope you enjoy the show.

Earnestly yours, as ever,

Ivan Heng (Mr.)

16 March 2009

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