Not the right title, you say! Well tell that to Ted Dykstra, because frankly I’m wondering if he understands Oscar Wilde’s sublime comedy of manners. Based on an interview he gave the Ottawa Citizen I had the impression he did. Watching Friday night’s opening performance of the NAC English Theatre season I have my doubts.
Now there is more than one way of approaching Wilde’s play of improbable probabilities and I have seen several but they have all had one thing in common: they were earnest. According to several dictionaries I’ve consulted the adjective means “resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.” Wilde himself refers to it as “a trivial play for serious people” and that is what makes it both funny and enduring. It seems that Dykstra took “trivial” to mean farcical. What he presented us with was a French bedroom farce without the slamming boudoir doors. Pratfalls were taken, things jumped over, things thrown, bellows bellowed, audiences winked at and double takes taken – the only things missing were those door slams and the crack of Harlequin’s slapstick.
Don’t get me wrong I love farce – bedroom or just good old fashioned knockabout – but if that’s what you want to direct then why not choose one of the many great pieces by Feydeau, Labiche or Ben Travers: revivals of Italian Straw Hat or Rookery Nook are long overdue. But to take one of the wittiest plays in the English language and turn it into a knockabout comedy – sorry old man, it’s just not done in the best of (play)houses.
|Director Ted Dykstra (centre on floor) and his cast for the NAC English Theatre’s presentation of
Oscar Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest.
NAC Photo: Andree Lanthier
Based on the concept they were given it may be unfair to say much of the individual performances except that the ladies fared better than the men. Unfortunately Alex McCooeye (Algernon) and Christopher Morris (Jack) bore the brunt of much of the clowning with Morris spending most of the second act delivering his dialogue at a relentless and frantic shout. Perhaps because she sat or stood in almost monolithic splendor Karen Robinson’s Lady Bracknell was the most convincing performance of the evening. Her very stillness made her reactions more telling and drew bigger laughs than all the mugging in the world could ever achieve.
Designer Patrick Clark’s sets and costumes caught the tone of playful seriousness – both Lady Bracknell and Algernon were slightly over-the-top but still within the bounds of early Edwardian good taste. And as always with the NAC the production values were of the highest standard. I noticed that we did not receive a warning about the fact that “real cigarettes” would be smoked at this performance – let’s hope the PC police don’t get on them for that one.
I saw Mr Dykstra, who I admire greatly as a performer and writer, in the audience and can only hope that he took note of the reaction around him: yes we laughed at some of the business but the most sincere and loudest laughs came from Wilde’s dialogue. I only wish the trust he had shown when speaking of the play had carried over to the stage.
A separate note: The evening had begun with greetings from Elder Annie Smith-St George who reminded us that we sat on unceded Algonquin land but more important asked that we quietly stand and remember our brothers who had become one with the Spirit world in the past three days. She spoke for a moment or two of the Creator who gave us the gift of laughter and joy that we would share in this place. It was a lovely and touching few minutes.