The Importance Of Being Earnest. A cringe-inducing production that is trivial and insulting!

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo: Andrée Lanthier

The National Arts Centre’s English theatre division has proudly unveiled its 2014-15 acting ensemble — and one can only feel embarrassed.

The rationale for a permanent acting company is a sound one. It’s to elevate the play-going experience by assembling a gifted team of artists versatile enough to tackle all types of theatre with confidence and understanding. Possibly the prime example in Canada exists at the Shaw Festival where its company has been hailed as the best in the western hemisphere.

That said, any acting company worth its salt should be able to meet the demands of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, a staple of the basic repertoire. Unfortunately, the NAC’s much vaunted new ensemble fails the test lamentably.

Given the production that landed soggily on the boards of Friday night, there’s something genuinely cringe-inducing about the preposterous notes that Jillian Keiley, artistic director of the NAC’s English theatre, contributed to the printed program. “It is the selection of our yearly ensemble that inspires the selection of our plays for the season,” she writes. “This season, we are blessed with great political thinkers and great comedians. Earnest is a natural fit for these wonderful actors. As I folded each of them into a national Canadian recipe for Earnest, it made more and more sense to me . . . .”

Presumably, then, this “national Canadian recipe” gives legitimacy to the phallic symbolism which makes a startling appearance in the second act. That’s when the prim and proper Miss Prism starts suggestively fondling a watering can. To be sure, Jillian Keiley didn’t direct this travesty of a production, but she must accept  responsibility for hiring Ted Dykstra, who was entrusted with that task, and for putting together this year’s company of actors.

And speaking of trust, both Dykstra and his cast seem somewhat deficient in that need when it comes to honouring the language and sensibility of Wilde’s evergreen  comedy.

To be sure, some of the celebrated epigrams do manage to get laughs, but more of them limp by with nary an impact. And there’s a key reason for this problem: talk is of the essence here, yet the production disregards W.H. Auden’s celebrated observation that the play is verbal opera . That leads to a failure to manage the cadences of Wilde’s witty dialogue, to ensure that it flows and — perhaps most importantly — to remember always that these are not just a succession of funny sayings, but that they also define character.

None of this really seems to matter in a production where, instead of dialogue, we are subjected to declarations that frequently reach the audience with all the subtlety of a megaphoned announcement. Indeed the dye is cast with the opening scene. That’s where we learn — hold your breath — about the comic muddle engulfing Jack Worthing who has adopted the alias of “Ernest” to conceal his shenanigans when visiting London and whose love for Gwendolen  faces a formidable obstacle in the the person of her mother, Lady Bracknell, who is aunt to Jack’s best friend, Algernon Moncrieff who is soon to become smitten with Jack’s innocent young ward, Cecily.

Jack and Algernon are the ones who first draw us into the play — and at the NAC we find ourselves enduring a shouting match. As the frantic Jack, Christopher Morris behaves like someone who has stumbled accidentally into the world of Oscar Wilde out of a 20th Century Ray Cooney farce. Alex McCooeye brings a certain languid angularity to the character of the mischievous Algernon, but as an actor he should try harder to control the self-satisfaction he shows when declaiming one of Wilde’s witticisms. Although McCooeye does have some sense of what Algernon is all about, he — like other cast members — should stop confusing archness with elegance.

Style is another victim. Here, there’s little evidence of any style at all in a production that even fails to establish the social context demanded by Wilde’s text and keeps flushing the play’s verbal glories down the drain in favour of contrived physical business and questionable sight gags. The Importance Of Being Earnest is one of the most sublime comedies in dramatic literature, yet in smart-aleck defiance of its elegant credentials, we have Jack Worthing somersaulting onto a sofa, Herbie Barnes’s bouncy butler blowing kisses, and key characters indulging in a sophomoric food fight — all of these moments signalling a production approach which distrusts the material or — possibly — fears its challenges. And here it should be pointed out that Wilde’s text does provide for a food fight, but it is a neatly choreographed verbal squabble over cucumber sandwiches, not a buffoonish muffin battle.

The production’s stylistic insecurities extend to the design where Patrick Clark gives us some exquisite costumes and then undermines them with, in turn, an under-furnished sitting room and a garden setting notable mainly for its theme-park artificiality.

Essentially, we have a production which stumbles along for three hours in search of a purpose. There is little salvation to be found in the performances. There is a welcome simplicity in Natasha Greenblatt’s performance as the charming but impulsive Cecily, but although she holds her own in the famous tea-pouring confrontation, she does not have a worthy adversary in Amy Matysio’s irritatingly skittish Gwendolen. Andrew Moodie brings gravitas to the role of the platitudinous Canon Chasuble, and although it’s an essentially one-note performance there’s enough here for him to have some credibility. Lois Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Prism is pretty unfathomable. Yes, the production makes sure we know she’s sexually repressed, revealing at the end a barely concealed lust after the good canon’s loins, but it ultimately seems less of a performance than a directorial imposition, rendered even more unbelievable (and incoherent) by a vocal delivery reminiscent of the screech of a smoke detector.

And that leaves us with Karen Robinson’s Lady Bracknell, one of the great roles in dramatic literature. It is a respectable reading. Despite evidence that Robinson is struggling with accent, she does convince as this awesome gorgon of a mother who frightens Jack Worthing half to death. In her carriage and demeanor, in the unchallengeable sense of entitlement she can display simply by sweeping across the floor of a drawing room, in the power she exudes even when she is still, Robinson shows an understanding of what the role requires.

She, too, can be overly declamatory with some of Wilde’s classic lines, but this is less of an offence with Lady Bracknell than with other characters in the play. After all she is the sort of autocrat and snob who no doubt considers herself ordained by God to make every speech sound like an irrefutable pronouncement. So Robinson, unlike most of her fellow actors, does emerge as a credible occupant of Wilde’s world, but that’s not enough to salvage this sorry revival.

The playwright himself famously labelled The Importance Of Being Earnest “a trivial comedy for serious people.” But he was not calling for a trivial production. The NAC revival is both trivial — and insulting.

Director: Ted Dykstra

Set and costumes: Patrick Clark

Lighting: Leigh Ann Vardy

Composer/Sound; Creighton Doane

Cats:

Miss Prism…………………………………………….Lois Anderson

Lane……………………………………………………Herbie Barnes

Cecily…………………………………………………..Natasha Greenblatt

Gwendolen……………………………………………..Amy Matsio

Algernon……………………………………………….Alex McCooeye

Rev. Canon Chasuble………………………………….Andrew Moodie

Jack…………………………………………………….Christopher Morris

Lady Bracknell…………………………………………Karen Robinson

Merriman……………………………………………….David Warburton

NAC Theatre: Oct. 21 to November 8


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