For stage veteran Nancye Hayes, Oscar Wilde’s infamous upperclass snob Lady Bracknell is a bucket list role, or as Hayes jokes in her best Lady Bracknell voice – a “bouquet list” role.
For stage veteran Nancye Hayes, Oscar Wilde’s infamous upperclass snob Lady Bracknell is a bucket list role, or as Hayes jokes in her best Lady Bracknell voice – a “bouquet list” role. Sydneysider Hayes, who first performed in Adelaide in 1962 (My Fair Lady), will star as Lady Bracknell in the State Theatre’s production of Wilde’s last and most well-known work The Importance of Being Earnest opposite Adelaide actor Nathan O’Keefe, who plays Algernon. Hayes agrees that Bracknell is a more daunting role than other iconic characters she has played in musicals and theatre, such as The Glass Menagerie’s Amanda Wingfield. “I think so – well, everyone goes, ‘Oh, you’re playing Lady Bracknell’ but it’s like everyone has sort of played it, so there’s that anticipation of what has gone before,” Hayes explains. “And while you need to keep an element of that, because she is what she is, I mean she’s very authoritative and a very snobbish woman – how delish to play all these things – but that’s what she is, and I think that within that premise of what she is as a character, that Wilde has written, trying to put your own stamp on it is important but she still has to be played in that way.” The Importance of Being Earnest (whose subheading, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, says it all) is a late 19th century satire of the Victorian upper class. It was first performed just a few months before Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality in 1895 and was the last piece he ever wrote. Hayes, who spoke to The Adelaide Review during rehearsals, says Earnest stands out for its “extraordinary dialogue”. “There are so many words that are just not used constantly, so getting it into your mind is one thing and getting it out of your mouth is another. So we’re just getting over that now [in rehearsals] and we’re just starting to hit that rhythm, because it is a very particular rhythm that he writes in and it’s wonderful.” Hayes, who recently had a Sydney theatre named after her, has been a staple of Australian theatre since the 60s. She says she wanted to be on stage from an early age but her mother wasn’t keen on that idea, so Hayes agreed go to secretary school to please her mother, which she did for a year. “We had a sort of a bargain, I suppose would be the word, that I would work for two years and then she felt I would have, as they say, something to fall back on. So I did that and then I started auditioning and I almost went straight into My Fair Lady and went on from there. So I was glad to get out of the forestry commission. I had the job of typing the number of railway sleepers that went to India. They were endless lists and if you made a mistake in those days you had to start again, so it was a bit stultifying I must say but I did meet some wonderful people and they’ve always come over the years to see my shows. I used to have my leotard and tap shoes and everything else in the filing cabinet and going off to classes and things.” Her mother was in My Fair Lady’s audience. “She was proud. She saw me do Sweet Charity which was a very big break back in those days because Australia didn’t really have Australians in leading roles then – JC Williamson had the policy that they would bring in imported artists to play the lead roles and Australians would do the supports. Then Australian audiences started to want to see people that they were beginning to follow in the leading roles and that’s when Jill Perryman went into Funny Girl and they gave me Sweet Charity the following year and Toni Lamond, of course, in Pyjama Game.” The Importance of Being Earnest Dunstan Playhouse Continues until Saturday, August 16 statetheatrecompany.com.au