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

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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

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