Wilde Thing

In my review of director David Mackay’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, I said that his take is vulgar. Because it is. There’s a fart joke, a cunt joke (yep using the word), and a penis joke (see the above photo). Rather than concentrating on Wilde’s language, in which the characters unwittingly skewer their own upper-class idiocy, Mackay lays on slapstick. And, instead of letting the characters’ superficial good manners play against their underlying viciousness, Mackay turns the Stanley Theatre’s stage into a physical combat zone—ruining the joke.

So far, that review has generated 36 comments. The conversational thread has unraveled now but, for the most part, I’ve appreciated the level of the discussion very much. (Check it all out at http://www.straight.com/article-642931/vancouver/arts-club-theatres-importance-being-earnest-exercise-vulgarity.)

I’m concerned, though, that some who have commented seem to think that I’m saying there’s only one way to perform The Importance of Being Earnest. I’m not. I just want to see a production that works. For me, the problem with Mackay’s interpretation is that it is rarely funny; all of the desperately coarse goop that he lays on top of the script obscures its superior comic riches.

Yes, I do think it’s important to respect the nature of the text, but there are a lot of ways to do that. Even within relatively traditional productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, there’s plenty of room for discovery. I have seen some very funny and very different Lady Bracknells. I haven’t seen a revolutionary production of Earnest but, if a company can successfully re-envision a play—any play—in a fundamental way, more power to them.

I remember Larry Lillo’s interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Playhouse a number of years ago. I see that script as a dialectic between Eros and death, and Lillo was certainly working within that framework. In doing so, he respected the nature of the text, in my view. He also gave me an experience of the play I’d never had before, an experience in which death held a stranglehold from the beginning. At the time that Larry was directing that show, he was sick with AIDS and, in his Streetcar, death was everywhere. The set’s heavy metal ceiling loomed above delicate cloth walls. There was no hope, as there usually is, in Blanche’s courtship with Mitch; Blanche was so vicious and Mitch such a wimp that you knew if they ever got together she’d eat him alive.

More recently, at Bard on the Beach, director Rachel Ditor reinvented The Merchant of Venice for me by putting Antonio’s love for Bassanio firmly in the centre of the production where it has every right to be. The text supports that angle. And I loved Dean Paul Gibson’s playfully postmodern vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bard and Scott Bellis’s steam-punk A Comedy of Errors at Studio 58.

I agree that it’s a terrible idea to try to treat theatrical works as museum pieces, which is why I complained that, although Blackbird Theatre’s recent production of Waiting for Godot was admirable in many ways, it also felt overly familiar.

So by all means open up the text for me, but please don’t pave it over.

One more thing before I go: In the comment thread, some people champion the idea that it’s okay to bastardize scripts to get bums in seats. Mackay’s Earnest may or may not do well at the box office. But, as I see it, that’s not the point. The point is that pandering to the lowest common denominator degrades the experience of going to the theatre. We’ve already got Wipeout on TV. Is that the direction we want to go at the Stanley?

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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