FROM MICHAEL HALBERSTAM, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
I had the good fortune of attending the Stratford Festival a few weeks ago, where I saw Antoni Cimolino’s delicious production of Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. In the fabric of Sheridan’s remarkable play I could clearly see the foundations of British masterpieces yet to come—the plays of George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Alan Ayckbourn, Noel Coward, Caryl Churchill and of course Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde is considered by many to be one of the greatest writers in the English language and perhaps the apex of his artistry is The Importance of Being Earnest. Had the great man not found himself embroiled in the scandal that would both destroy and perhaps define his life, we can only wonder at the plays that might have been written.
It is fitting therefore that, as a company which revels in the written word, we should turn our sights to one of the greatest comedies ever written for the stage.
So why now? Why after 25 years do we finally turn to Wilde?
Back in 1997 I had the pleasure of collaborating with William Brown and Shannon Cochran when we took a fresh look at Noel Coward’s Private Lives. It was important to us that we should articulate a more natural delivery for lines that had often been declaimed in contemporary stagings. We sought to find a real relationship between Amanda and Victor and Elyot and Sybil, and worked to ground the emotional foundations of the play in a real and complex emotional setting. The effect of this was that the usual brittleness associated with the play was replaced by an effortless ease of delivery that drew the audience in and gave the Theatre one of its earliest significant successes. After our first performance, word of mouth spread and we very quickly sold out, aided in no small part by a rave review in the Chicago Tribune from then chief critic Richard Christiansen who called it a “mini marvel of a production.”
It is that same ease that I want to find in this revival of Earnest.
Yet, if Lady Bracknell is at the apex of London Society, wouldn’t she be archetypically feminine? Tough, yes but fiercely intelligent, beautiful, and commanding and filled with feminine strength.
There has been a long-time pattern of casting men in the role of the formidable Lady Bracknell—as if somehow a woman might not be capable of filling the needs of the role. Yet, if Lady Bracknell is at the apex of London Society, wouldn’t she be archetypically feminine? Tough, yes but also fiercely intelligent, beautiful and commanding and filled with feminine strength. Furthermore, Cecily and Gwendolen and Jack and Algernon are frequently played as almost interchangeable in type, and in the playing are so aware of their own cleverness that they often become insufferable and even monotonous. The audience is left holding on to an endless stream of aphorisms and Wildean quotes that titillate and amuse but fail to emotionally engage. As we approach first rehearsal I look forward to treating the text as though it were a new piece of writing and, with my superb cast, mining it for truth, human connection and emotional complexity.
Cecily and Jack stand on the outskirts of society, Jack having been found in unusual circumstances and adopted and raised outside of aristocratic regimens. Algernon and Gwendolen are products of a deep affiliation with London society but both are drawn to individuals who can surprise them and who do not conform to the norms they have been so rigidly raised within. And the aforementioned Lady Bracknell, one of Wilde’s greatest creations, is holding the reins tightly, but in need of the one thing that money cannot buy—that is to say: more money.
Wilde was satirizing a world that looked very much like the world in which we currently live.
In creating the world of the play, we have imagined an illustrative two-dimensional setting from which Wilde’s richly drawn and witty characters can emerge (like Michelangelo’s sculptures escaping from the blocks of marble in which he believed them to be encased). The frivolity and lack of substance of the world they inhabit will be counterbalanced by the depth of feeling and sincerity that they all ultimately display for each other as mysteries are resolved, family ties restored and love eventually brings everyone together.
Finally, and not unimportantly, it is worth noting that Wilde was satirizing a world that looked very much like the world in which we currently live but he was smart enough to know that he needed to engage audiences emotionally, to make us laugh, give us a happy ending while allowing his societal criticism to sit just under the surface of the play. The consequence of this is a delicious evening of sparkling wit, spectacular language and superb artistry. All we have to do is lean forward and engage!