If you had told Daniel York Loh 15 years ago that The Importance of Being Earnest would be one of the highlights of his career, he would probably have laughed in your face.
In the United Kingdom, where Daniel grew up, Oscar Wilde’s outrageously funny play has become a profoundly familiar classic.
“Everyone knows it backwards,” says Daniel. “They can pretty much sit in the theatre and recite the lines along with the actors. It’s why I haven’t actually watched The Importance of Being Earnest in Britain.”
More to the point, Wilde’s exquisite comedy of manners seemed like the kind of play in which Daniel – an actor of mixed Chinese Singaporean and British descent – would never be cast.
“To be honest, I had immense hang-ups about The Importance of Being Earnest when I was younger,” he confesses. “I was guilty of thinking that it was a superficial play for posh white people.”
Daniel still remembers how he felt walking past Theatre Royal in Bath, where he grew up.
“That’s a very big, rich Victorian theatre, and plays like The Importance of Being Earnest run there a lot,” he says. “I used to look up at the theatre and think, ‘They wouldn’t let me in there.’”
His impression of The Importance of Being Earnest being “the preserve of white, middle-class people” was only solidified during his drama school days.
“We had a very posh old woman come in to teach us acting,” Daniel recalls. “One day, she asked us to read The Importance of Being Earnest – even as she told us, ‘None of you will ever do this play, because you simply don’t have the class for it.’”
A Wilde Act of Defiance
As a result, Daniel only delved deeper into The Importance of Being Earnest when he was first cast in WILD RICE’s award-winning production of it over a decade ago.
That’s when he realised that the play isn’t simply a comedy aimed squarely at the funny bone.
“There are so many more layers to it beyond its many jokes and punchlines,” he observes.
“It’s also about identity and belonging. It asks questions like ‘Who am I? Where do I belong? Where do I come from?’ These are almost primal concerns.”
Even more powerfully, WILD RICE’s production overturns every assumption you could make about this play: from race and class to gender and sexuality.
“We’re taking a story that the colonial English classes have always claimed as their own, and we’re proving that a cast full of Asian actors can tell it just as well as they can.”
Even getting to speak Wilde’s rapid-fire dialogue in the play feels “subversive” to Daniel.
“It’s actually a real stretch for me,” he notes. “The play features the very stylised, very elegant language used in those days by the upper-class elite. The proportion of the population in England that actually speaks like the characters in this play is tiny!”
“You also have to factor in Wilde’s extraordinary, almost other-worldly wit, and the complexities of his sentence structure. Not to mention the fact that Wilde was actually Irish (and extremely proud of it).”
“I’m not sure anyone in the world has ever spoken quite like that,” Daniel concludes. “And the English middle classes certainly shouldn’t feel they’re the only ones who are entitled to on stage!”
At the same time, this production has won acclaim – and some controversy – for having an entirely male cast of actors perform every role in Wilde’s romantic comedy of errors.
“That, too, is an act of defiance, because homosexuality is still criminalised in Singapore,” Daniel points out. “It’s been over a decade since we first staged this show, and it still feels like quite an important statement for us to be making here.”
“I sometimes wonder what Oscar Wilde would’ve made of this all-male production on the other side of the planet – and I think he would have loved it!”
Going Wilde with WILD RICE
There are other joys for Daniel in returning to The Importance of Being Earnest for the fifth time – one of which is getting to work with director Glen Goei again.
“Glen gave me my first-ever job when I got out of drama school in London,” says Daniel. “I answered an ad for a play called Porcelain at the Royal Court.”
“It was an amazing moment of connection for me – up until my audition, I had never met anyone outside of my own family who was from Singapore.”
Daniel is also thrilled to be reuniting on stage with WILD RICE’s Founding Artistic Director, Ivan Heng, who plays the formidable Lady Bracknell.
“Ivan is a living legend,” says Daniel matter-of-factly. “Singaporeans should be incredibly proud of him and everything he’s achieved for the local arts scene.”
He’s especially impressed by WILD RICE’s new theatre in Funan – a performing arts venue purpose-built and designed by artists, for artists.
“This is one of the most beautiful theatres in the world, and Singapore should be so proud of it.”
“I’ve performed in the theatre it’s modelled on – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon – and that’s easily one of the most exciting theatres in the world. WILD RICE’s theatre is actually better in terms of its state-of-the-art design.”
The fact that this theatre is also an “acoustic marvel” has given Daniel the opportunity to experiment with his performance in The Importance of Being Earnest.
“In earlier productions, I wanted to find a more subtle way into some of my lines,” explains Daniel. “But it was impossible to do. Everything had to be played very loud, or the lines would get lost.”
“Now, however, there are parts of the show where we’re literally just talking to each other. There’s a different quality to our performances that has been really exciting for us to discover as a cast.”
“Having now performed the play in the new space, I would say it’s everything I hoped for and more,” he adds. “We’ve all found layers and complexities in the lines and characters that are totally unique to this particular iteration of the production – not to mention a bundle more laughs!”
All in all, Daniel couldn’t be happier to return to this production of a play he never thought he would be cast in.
“It’s like the completion of a journey. To get to come back to Singapore and perform this play with a cast full of Asian actors, for an audience full of Asian faces, in one of the very best theatres in the world – there’s nothing more powerful or moving than that. It’s absolutely extraordinary.”