The Importance of Understanding Earnest

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.

October 25 – 1854: The Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (Charge of the Light Brigade).

Things to Come

I have mentioned before – though probably both you and I had forgotten – that we seem to book up musical events well in advance. At the moment I’m holding tickets for La Traviata a year from today – how is that for optimism?

But looking at the calender a few things are being red circled as events to look forward to in the next few months.

Antonio Pappano and a bunch of the kids (Anja Harteros, Sonia Ganassi, Rolando Villazón, René Pape and our own beloved orchestra and chorus of Santa Cecilia) are getting together at the Parco del Musica to put on a show: the Verdi Requiem. Yes Parsi I said Rolando Villazón and René Pape.

Yuri Temirkanov, Opera Chic’s Uncle Solly, will be giving us Russian goodies – Prince Igor and the Pathétique with the Academia Santa Cecilia orchestra and chorus.

Once again out to the Parco where Martha Argerich will be tinkling the ivories in the Beethoven #1.

Riccardo Muti returns to the Teatro dell’Opera for Gluck’s rarely heard Iphigénie en Aulide. Love me some Gluck, love me some Muti so that one’s got a big red circle.

Not musical but definitely magical – I saw the Piccolo Teatro di Milano do their signature piece Arlecchino, servitore di due padroni) back in 1959 when they toured North America.

In those days Arlecchino was the great Marcello Moretti but since his death in 1961 the role has been played by Ferruccio Soleri. Now in his 70s he restages Giorgio Strahler’s production and still performs the incredible “lazzi” devised for him 47 years ago. This may well be my last chance to see him in action so I’m heading up to Milano for a day or two.

And then perhaps not all that musical but definitely nostalgical – Marianne Faithful in Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Apparently she’s been doing this cantata in a few places in the past few years with great success. Marianne Faithful? Who would have thought?

Well we have a Zeffirelli Pagliacci (without Cavalliera Rusticana – budget cuts?)with Myrto Paptanasiu, Fabio Armiliato and Juan Pons. Yes Parsi I said Mytro and yes Shelia I said Fabio, though I have a feeling we may end up seeing the second cast on our subscription. May have to see this one twice.

The end of the month brings a return trip to Salzburg for the Whitsun Festival – again Muti and this time with an even rarer opera seria: Demofoonte by Jommelli. Plus some really great concerts including Marco Beasley and Accordione. And of course Salzburg itself – a city I never get tired off.

Another trip up to Milano this time for two 20th century operas back to back at La Scala – that’s if the unions are good and if the Scala booking system works. I can’t exactly see the tourists flocking to the two works in question so tickets may be readily available. Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella cattedrale is based on T. S. Elliot’s verse play and stars Ferruccio Furlanetto, like Solari in his twilight years, as Thomas à Beckett. Then Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Robert Carsen’s famous production from Aix-en-Provence starring David Daniels. Friend Parsi was transported by this production when he saw it in Athens this past summer. Daniels! Carsen! Britten! Big red circle on that one.

And at month’s end we get the Verdi Requiem again but this time with Daniel Barenboim, Barbara Frittoli, Ganassi, Marcello Giordani and Pape with the forces of La Scala. And at that point we’re just mid-way through the year.

More goodies to come include the Rossini Festival in Pesaro (with Juan Diego Florez), Laurent’s favorite opera Pelléas et Mélisande and that Traviata I mentioned with Daniela Dessi and Armiliato – yes Shelia I said Daniela and Fabio! Plus anything else that, in an effort to bankrupt me, my dear Opera Chic – its her fault I’m going broke -springs on me that I decided I really must see.

What is it that Lady Bracknell says? A life crowded with incident.

29 dicembre – San Tommaso Becket

A Christmas Tradition – Pantomine

By the time most of you read this Deb and I should be sitting in the Stalls at the Old Vic yelling “Oh no you’re not!” or “Hello Buttons!” or even “Its behind you!” at Cinderella, the Ugly Step-Sisters or Buttons. And no we won’t have had too much vino at the Fountain, we’ll be part of a largely adult audience regressing to childhood at a Christmas pantomime.

Its difficult to explain Panto to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it. Its very, very English – though the tradition has carried over to Canada, Australia, in fact anywhere on the map that was pink when I was a kid, even Hong Kong. Its roots go back to popular theatre of the 1700s but it has changed so much that John Rich and Joey Grimaldi wouldn’t recognize it today. Over the years it morphed from a Sir Ian McKellen as Widow TwankeyHarlequinade preceded by a fairy story in punning rhyming couplets to a fairy story used as an excuse for elaborate stage sets, long-limbed chorus girls and Music Hall turns. In the 90s it seemed to have become the refuge of second banana television performers and would be pop stars. Now its become all the rage with “legitimate” actors, writers and performers. Cinderella,at the Old Vic this year is written by none other than Stephen Fry – writer, actor, director, bon vivant and all round good time Charlie and Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) is playing the Fairy Godmother. And that my dears is Sir Ian McKellen (yes Gandolf as well as the greatest Shakespearean actor of our time) at the left as Aladdin’s mother Widow Twankey two years ago at the Vic! Pantos gone all respectable like.

Why Widow Twankey? And why does she run a laundry in Peking? And why does she have an assistant called Dim Sum? Because its tradition! And speaking of Twanks there are other traditions that everyone of us in that audience today are expecting will be observed.

The Dame: There will always be a man dressed as a woman – not the same as a female impersonator, take a look at Sir Ian. This will be Widow Twankey, Jack’s mother Dame Trot, Mother Goose, Sarah the Cook or in the case of Cinderella there will be two as the Ugly Step Sisters. The Dame is normally man-mad and has lines that would make a sailor blush – though fortunately they go over most children’s heads. And as in the case of Sir Ian, each change of costume will be more outrageous than the last – he had 14 if I recall.

The Principal Boy: In the good old days the Principal boy was a perky-breasted, long-Joseph Millsonlegged beauty in net stockings, high heeled boots and doublet with plunging neckline. She could belt like Merman, dance like Miller and slap her thigh in what was thought to be a butch gesture. Sadly that has given way to Principal Boys being played by …. a boy! Sometimes its a slightly over the hill pop star or a refugee from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – though more often these days its a good looking man who can sing, dance and cause the hearts of matinee ladies and the chorus boys to flutter. This year at the Old Vic its stage and film actor Joseph Millson (right) and he’s required to do a strip tease – my how Panto has grown.

The Principal Girl: The main qualification is that she be pretty and able to sing – Julie Andrews was a principal girl at the Palladium back when she was a teenager.

There are Doubles acts, Animal acts, Singalongs, Audience contests, ghost scenes, laundry scenes, schoolroom scenes, in the introduction the good fairy enters from the right and the demon or villain from the left, popular references are made to local and international events (I seem to recall a line about Tony Blair hiding behind a Bush a few years back.) Songs are sung, dances are danced, good triumphs and unless its really bad the audience has a good time.

Sir Ian with Frances BarberApparantly Fry, being Fry, has written a very erudite script (emphasis on the rude) with some decidedly gay twists. The Prince and his footman Dandini have a shower scene; Cinderella’s best friend forever Buttons helps her with make-up tips and accessorising and they share the same taste in men; and when Cinders and her Prince are married in the grand finale, Buttons and Dandini have a civil union. “Oh my dear, sounds ever so gay,” as Widow Twankey would say!

I have a feeling we’ll all be shouting “He’s behind you, Buttons!” And Deb and I will be yelling the loudest.

That’s one more shot of Sir Ian revealing the legs that sunk a thousand ships.

17 gennaio – San Antonio abate

You Can Say That There ….. Now!

As a follow up to last week – the vagina thing:

The School Board in Cross River N.Y. has had second thoughts about suspending the three girls who used the dreaded V word in a presentation of The Vagina Monologues. As with most bureaucratic changes of heart/mind only after parents, students, author Eve Ensler, the news media and the Civil Liberties Union raised a fuss did Superintendent Bob Lichtenfeld see it for the foolishness it was.

And I may be reading this wrong – after several Venetian murder mysteries I become cynical about officialdom – but is Superintendent Bob hanging the principal out of dry? Or just his principles??

Send In The Clowns

Saturday December 8, 1973 – Majestic Theater – A Little Night Music

It was a crowded weekend – Italiana with Marilyn Horne at the Opera Met, the Baroque Angel Christmas tree at the Museum Met, High Mass at St. Mary the Virgin (Smokey Mary’s), lunch at the Russian Tearoom, , non-stop activity – but suddenly that Saturday evening there came a grace note in both the musical and our weekend – a shared moment of melancholy quiet.

Glynis Johns sat motionless at stage left and in a voice that was never really meant to sing broke our hearts. Send In the Clowns had become popular in Judy Collins’ silken – almost sexless – version but here was the woman Sondheim had written it for, singing it the way he meant it to be sung. Singing of middle-aged love and the sadness of chances missed. And in the reprise with Len Cariou singing of the sweet foolishness and deep love that reunited them and would hold them together. It was a magical moment.

As with any magical moment that you discover has been captured you wonder if it was really all that wonderful….. all that magical. Looking at this clip: it was and it still is.