The irony of playing rapscallion Algernon Moncrieff isn’t lost on actor Nathan O’Keefe, who admits he was a bored teen who did the bare minimum at school and got away with far too much
young and old have been enchanted by O’Keefe’s antics in such hit productions as Slingsby’s Man Covets Bird, Brink’s The Hypochondriac, Patch’s Me and My Shadow, State Theatre’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and Windmill’s nationally acclaimed musical adaptation of Pinocchio.
Now he is turning his hand to Oscar Wilde’s classic satire of Victorian manners, moral repression and institutions like marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest for State Theatre, opposite Australian stage veteran Nancye Hayes as the formidable Lady Bracknell.
O’Keefe, 32, grew up in Aberfoyle Park and attended Marion High School, then Hamilton College, where “we didn’t have a drama department”. He focused on playing sports, particularly basketball, but says he always wanted to be an actor.
“I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what it meant, but I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.
“I’d fantasise – I didn’t care about much in terms of schooling. I didn’t invest in it.
“I wagged a whole semester of Year 11 – to the point where I organised a meeting with my principal, my teachers and my parents to say: ‘ Look, this is what I’m doing, can we all at least acknowledge it? I’m getting away with it far too easily’.”
Which leads us to his character in The Importance of Being Earnest: the wealthy and witty Algernon Moncrieff, who O’Keefe says is “all about extracting as much pleasure as he can – more often than not at other people’s expense”.
“He’s got everything,” O’Keefe says. “He’s bored. So what he does is invent characters that he plays, to get that spark of life. He’s a rapscallion. He thrives off of being cheeky and getting away with things. His lies to Lady Bracknell are so wafer-thin and blatant: It’s the danger of whether he will get caught. And when he does get caught, it’s like: ‘How can I get out of this now?’” Sound familiar? “I hadn’t thought about that,” O’Keefe laughs. “I’ve been preparing for this role for decades!”
In fact, O’Keefe didn’t even see a proper play until Year 12 and the first time he ever sang in front of an audience was at his audition to get into Adelaide College of the Arts.
“They said bring sheet music… I’m like ‘What is sheet music?’ so I brought a CD and sang along with it. I brought props with me… no one does that. I wrote one of my own audition pieces, which is a big no-no. I did everything you shouldn’t do… they must have thought ‘This guy’s got balls’. I stumbled into it.”
After graduating in 2003, he planned to spend three years building a resume here, then move to Melbourne.
“In those three years I did lots of profit-share work and got to work with amazing people who taught me a lot – Geoff Crowhurst, for example, gave me a huge break with one of my first major roles in X-Ray, the David Hicks piece.
“I was so lucky to work with Geoff… I don’t know if I can articulate it exactly, but he taught me what it was to be professional, in terms of making your next show better than your last. As a young actor, if you have an off night, it’s the end of the world. There’s this saying arm in plaster.
“Four weeks in a cast, I got out and they realised then that the stabilising ligament was on the other side… so I’d twisted it all the way around. It had reset there, so then they had to operate. I’ve never dive-rolled again!”
Nevertheless, O’Keefe’s long, thin physique and knack for slapstick has been used to great comic effect.
“Initially, it used to really, really annoy me when I would read ‘ lanky Nathan O’Keefe’,” he laughs, wildly waving his arms about in mock protest.
“But look at Pinocchio: I was the tallest one in it, playing the little cut-out boy. It hasn’t got in the way for audiences. I’ve come to terms with ‘ lanky’ as a good thing.”
Such is the demand for O’Keefe’s services that companies have even been prepared to shift schedules to accommodate the actor’s availability, although he had to forgo a tour of State Theatre’s The Complete Works last year in order to appear in A Comedy of Errors, a collaboration with national company Bell Shakespeare. Man Covets Bird and Pinocchio have had seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, and there is overseas interest in both shows.
Most of all, O’Keefe says he has fallen in love with “feel-good’’ theatre.
“We’ve got something we want to give to the audience,’’ he says, “and we want it to be the best gift that they’ve ever received.’’ The Importance of Being Earnest has previews at the Dunstan Playhouse today and Monday, and runs from Tuesday until August 16. Book at BASS