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.

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