Arts Club Theatre's The Importance of Being Earnest verges on vulgarity over polish
By Oscar Wilde. Directed by David Mackay. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, March 21. Continues until April 15
Director David Mackay seems to think that he’s funnier than Oscar Wilde. He is gravely mistaken. In this Arts Club production, Mackay takes The Importance of Being Earnest, the wittiest play in the English language, and bludgeons it almost to death with vulgarity, adding, among other excesses, a fart joke and a food fight. Why?
The Importance of Being Earnest has been making people laugh since it premiered in 1895—because it’s sublimely stylish. The absurd plot centres on two young toffs, Algernon and Jack. Both, for reasons of their own, pretend to be named Earnest, and two comely young women—Cecily and Gwendolen—fall in love with them, largely based on the strength of that stalwart moniker.
Language is front and centre in The Importance of Being Earnest. Through their filigreed sentences, Wilde’s well-heeled characters send up the anti-intellectual stupidities of wealthy Victorians. When Jack proposes to Gwendolen, he must face an interview with her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, who opines, “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”
Much of the comedy in the play bubbles out of the tension that arises between its genteel surfaces and its savage undertow. When Gwendolen and Cecily meet for the first time, they quickly fall into a spat about who is really engaged to Earnest Worthing. In order, the stage directions for their lines read, “Quite politely, rising”, Very politely, rising”, “Meditatively”, and “Thoughtfully and sadly”; as the venom amps up, so do the manners. That’s the point.
But Mackay runs roughshod over Wilde’s polished surfaces and he explodes—and destroys—the play's comic tensions. Often he does so by applying the excesses of lower forms of Victorian entertainment. Mackay begins his interpretation with a music-hall-inspired dumb show that gives away the script’s most crucial plot point. He treats several scenes as if they were melodrama: his characters pose and gesticulate, throttling their repartee. And through sound designer Murray Price, Mackay adds melodramatic piano accompaniment, gumming up the superior music of the script. Rather than engaging in wickedly polite exchanges, his actors yell, physically fight, spit on one another, and throw food around the stage. He even has Gwendolen make a cunt joke. Really. In her tiff with Cecily, Amber Lewis, this production’s Gwendolen, says, “I had no idea there were any flowers in the CUNT-ry.”
It’s sad, because many of the performers in this show could have honoured the script and revealed its true riches, given better direction. Impressively, recent Studio 58 graduate Ella Simon, who plays Cecily, has the lightest—and most effective—touch. In the second half, she shares a scene with Charlie Gallant’s Algernon—Gallant dials it down during this passage—and you can see the script peeking through the muck of Mackay’s vision. Simon Bradbury mostly hits the right baffled notes as local curate Reverend Chasuble. And Allan Zinyk has his moments playing Lady Bracknell in drag, but it’s not the bravura performance I had hoped for.
Amir Ofek is one of the most creative set designers in town, and within the terms of Mackay’s vision, he delivers. But the vision and the sets are still grossly overstated. In Act 1, which takes place in Algernon’s London rooms, the dominant set pieces are a gigantic hand mirror and an enormous top hat. When Lady Bracknell arrives and wants to sit down, she has to jump onto the top hat to do it.
Does Mackay really think that Oscar Wilde needs his help to be funny? Or does he think that Vancouver audiences aren’t clever enough to grasp genuine wit? Whatever motivated Mackay, the results, in this production, are a disaster.