28 September 2005

Dear Oscar Wilde

It's astonishing how resilient is your Importance of Being Earnest. Of the two productions I have seen, neither has been a straight rendition of the text, but some sort of wacky take thereon - yet you escape such brutalising attentions unscathed. Four years ago in Edinburgh I saw a cross-cast version by Illyria theatre company, with Lady Bracknell as pure Pantomime Dame and the chaps as Principal Boys. It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a theatre. Then last night I saw Ridiculusmus's production of the play, with John and David playing all eight parts between them. That was pretty funny, too, although much less to do with anything you wrote.

How do you feel about all this jiggery-pokery with your masterpiece? It's not even as if the bonkers versions end with the two I've seen: KAOS did a production of the play a few years ago in their trademark heightened physical whatnot. It culminated in a violent food fight between Gwendolen and Cecily. I've never yet seen anyone do the play in a way related to how I presume you intended it. Why is this?

On its own terms, it's pretty much a perfect play. The plot whooshes along like a torpedo, there's a guaranteed laugh every eight lines and the characters manage the extraordinary trick of being totally loveable and utterly contemptuous at the same time. It's almost impossible to fuck up. And perhaps that's why people try. The play is so resilient that it will withstand any amount of nonsense and still produce a damn good piece of theatre.

I can't think of another play that would stand up to the treatment Ridiculusmus gave Importance last night. The concept - two guys play all the roles - gives plenty of scope for clownesque lunacy, and up to a point they exploit this. But the logic of it surely has to be that the changes get more and more manic and ragged; having established the gag surely you have to up the stakes? But it accelerates only from funeral march (very funny: lots of opportunity for putting one another in the shit) to brisk walk. It's never a manic dash, there's never any real sense of danger they might fuck up. So the animating question becomes "how are they going to do this bit?" (a question of method) rather than "how the fuck are they going to do this bit?" (a question of possibility). Obviously, the latter is much more exciting. Although neither has anything whatever to do with you.

Of course, this sense of danger would be fraudulent. That is entirely beside the point. When I did Mr Puntila and His Man, Matti earlier this year, the whole process was an exploration of ways to make it look like we'd got it wrong. The audience laughed like drains. Last night's Importance had none of that sense of danger, the real animating force of much comedy. All of the really big laughs came because of your magnificent script. I think I'd like to see someone do the play straight.

27 September 2005

Dear William Shakespeare

I've seen two of your comedies in the last week and been struck by the widespread tendency among your directors to emphasise the bits that aren't funny. Surely this is bizarre. Yet it seems that to dwell upon the dark corners somehow gives more weight to your work. Work intended purely to entertain is frivolous almost to the point of pornography; one can only justify the production of your comedies if one can extract the moral message or the cruelty lying at its heart. It never seems to occur to these people that the surest route to success in the production of a comedy is to extract the jokes.

I expect that in the months to come I shall be writing to you more than any other of my correspondents, so I won't labour the point. But I think you'd have gained far more satisfaction from the Sheffield Crucible production of Much Ado About Nothing than the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Twelfth Night. The latter is a play particularly susceptible to the vogue for writing large the dark corners of a text, its subject being romantic melancholy. And Ian Brown's production writes this mood exquisitely large, in a beautiful, thoughtful and sober production. As a reading of the text, it's impossible to fault: these people sure are melancholy. But as a performance it's unsatisfying: this is a comedy, after all, and has anyone ever considered that these moods of melancholic mooning are actually pretty ridiculous?

Consider Orsino. Surely you didn't mean us to take "If music be the food of love" as a serious example of the lover's art? If so, why make him thus ludicrously capricious? "Play on", he says, extolling the exquisite virtues of music as a spur to the lover's appetite. This lasts a whole four lines before he snaps "Enough! No more! 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before." Are we to suppose that his musician has deteriorated in skill in the intervening forty-five seconds? I somehow suspect the contrary, that you intended us to infer from this that Orsino is a ridiculous specimen among ridiculous specimens: a thesis you expound upon beautifully by demonstrating how love makes monkeys of us all. It's difficult to know whether it is through the demands of your chosen form or through sentimentality that you concede to the obligatory happy ending, but I like to imagine you're arguing that despite the ridiculous contortions love demands of us, it is nevertheless an exquisite thing, to be treasured. I can't quite square this with Sebastian's absurdly mercenary coupling with Olivia, but you can't have everything.

Brown's production gets all of the melancholy but little of the nonsense - or rather, it follows the conventional segregation of "serious" characters from "comic"characters. Thus Sir Andrew (wonderfully played by John Lightbody) is the only character who draws belly laughs, as, for the others, laughter is sacfificed on the altar of psychological truth. Why can't psychological truth be amusing?

Take Feste, for example. He's usually played as just another melancholic - and I think, rightly so. The trouble is, the motivation and focus for his melancholy are rarely located with any precision. If he's in love, he keeps it pretty quiet. So what is he so down about? Well, it's actually pretty clear. He was "much beloved" of Olivia's father, but under the new regime his position is by no means guaranteed. He's fooling for his livelihood in a way he hasn't had to since he was young and energetic. His unease is economic. And his jokes go over badly. The joke comes from the failure of the jokes: a position only possible when the audience is acknowledged as it was in your day, but is only capriciously so (i.e. solely during soliloquies) these days. Feste is a clown; a clown needs an audience. If he's simply a bit down he does nothing more than sap the energy of the audience; if he is allowed to acknowledge us he can draw both our laughter and our sympathy much more effectively than by mooning around.

Much Ado is a simpler proposition because the leads are acknowledged wits, and therefore allowed to be played for laughs. So the Crucible show was pretty enjoyable. But there's a period in the middle of this play where it completely stops being funny. And I can't help feeling like that's your fault. You come on a bit strong with the condemnation of Hero's infidelity, both from Claudio and Leonato. Did you have a jealous streak? These aren't the only of your characters (Leontes, Othello) to condemn infidelity in the strongest possible terms, only to learn to their shame that they have been mistaken. Such is the case here, but the condemnation is considerably stronger than the withdrawal, leaving for an oddly imbalanced piece of work.

The problem with this production was that it exaggerated this imbalance rather than dealing with it. The key moment comes when Claudio is convinced of his error and Leonato tells him that his punishment is to marry "his sister's daughter". Why does he allow a man who has so egregiously wronged his daughter, to marry his daughter? The only way I can see of answering this is to allow a moment where Leonato is inclined to serious punishment, before he acknowledges that Claudio's contrition is genuine and that Claudio's belief that his mistake has led to Hero's death is punishment enough. A skilled actor - such as Nicholas Jones, who played Leonato with wit and wisdom here - could easily show with subtlety and conviction the experience of this momentary dilemma. But in this production, we see all and understand none: Leonato's grief and rage is movingly exposed, but it is too easy to share. Having done this, we need significantly more convincing than we get here when it is replaced by a softer emotion.

Having said all that, it's pretty clear that this part isn't in the least funny. I wonder whether it was in your day.