Theater De WAANzin, Ghent, Belgium. 7th, 13th, 19th, 20th, 21st June 2003.
Once, when Herbert Beerbohm Tree asked Wilde what he thought of his performance as Hamlet, the playwright commented, 'My dear Tree, you were . . . funny without being vulgar.' In the case of an actor playing Shakespearean tragedy, Wilde's observation may have been less than a compliment. In comedy, however, fun without vulgarity is a rare accomplishment, and Oscar Wilde reigns supreme as a master of this delicate art. Like no other, he combines intense humour with subtlety and distinction; indeed, the subtlety and distinction often make the humour. As such, Wilde can pride himself on the creation of a perfect specimen of that singular anomaly, the refined farce, in the shape of The Importance of Being Earnest.
In its recent production of Wilde's play, the Ghent amateur theatre company De WAANzin chose to highlight the farce rather than the refinement. Although they declared themselves most eager to perform Earnest in nineteenth-century style clothes (borrowed for the occasion from the Ghent Publiekstheater), they did not choose to match their manners or speech with their costumes. The result is a quaint burlesque, a clashing cross between high Victorian comedy and Flemish popular theatricals of the worst kind.
The play begins promisingly in Algernon's flat in Half-Moon Street which, indicating that the residing gentleman has nothing but looks everything, is painfully small – visitors have to literally wriggle past either Lane or a piece of furniture in order to enter. In this narrow environment Lady Bracknell is made to look extra imposing in a 'huge cartwheel Gainsborough hat' with ostrich feathers that hardly leaves any space for the other characters to move in.
Unfortunately, Algernon himself (Dirk Crommelinck) creates an unfavourable impression. Quite apart from being clearly without funds, he is also entirely without breeding. The self-proclaimed paragon of taste and education speaks with a thick Ghent accent, and though he keeps priding himself on his perfect phrasing, he displays a decided lacked of style in manners as, indeed, in language. The translator (who is cautious enough not to print his name in the programme) has much to answer for. Apart from providing the company with a frightfully inadequate rendering of several epigrams and exchanges, he has entirely ignored the class noteof the original text, and his Dutch, or rather Flemish, version is pretty vulgar in tone. So, for example, instead of calling each other 'dear boy' as in the original, Jack and Algernon here prefer 'klootzakske', a decidedly rude, but not, I have been told, necessarily unfriendly term that can be translated as 'son of a bitch'. When Algernon sees Gwendolen at Woolton, he does not exclaim 'Good heavens, Gwendolen' but rather 'Miljaardedju, Gwendolen', which in English would sound something like 'Bloody hell, Gwendolen'. It is possible that in the opinion of the translator natural conversation among friends invariably sounds like this; to my mind it makes Jack and Algernon sound like exponents of the fabled 'Flemish Farmer Film'.
It does not appear to be the case that director Steve De Schepper has wanted to present the audience with a group of characters that do no more than pose as aristocrats, or to create, for example, a locally coloured version of Wilde's classic. In fact the language used by Jack and Algernon in the play veers from the formal in one sentence to the colloquial in the next, without there being any perceivable pattern behind it, and the women in the play adopt distinguished airs throughout. The use of colloquialisms and swearwords rather seems contrived purelyto provoke laughter in the manner of pedestrian popular farce.
The vulgar farcicality reaches a fever pitch in the garden of the Manor House, where Jack and Algernon fight over a plate of pastries. In that scene, Dirk De Corte and Dirk Crommelinck are at pains to stuff their mouths with as many pastries as possible while reciting their lines, the result of which can be imagined. As they slobberingly spray themselves with bits of pastry, there seems little point in Algy's statement that he could not eat muffins in an agitated manner because the butter would get on his cuffs. At this stage, the production is no longer funny; it is disgusting. The master stroke of comedy is achieved when Jack flings a plate of tea cake in Merriman's face. Of course the audience roars with laughter. De WAANzin have arguably created the un-Wildest Wilde production ever.
The performance is not, fortunately, entirely without its charms. Despite occasional overacting, Trui De Maré is a fearful and funny Lady Bracknell. Wim Vidts makes the utmost of his few lines as Lane and Merriman by cutting a delightful figure on stage, and Nic Fruru gives shape to a highly enjoyable and amiable Chasuble, waxing lyrical over his adaptable sermon and displaying a shy romanticism in the presence of Miss Prism. Isabel Vandersteene's Cecily is young and spontanæous without being childish and Hanne Hendrickx' self-conscious and distinguished Gwendolen is simply excellent. They deserve to be in a better Earnest than this.
Eva Thienpont (University of Ghent) is Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS for Belgium and the Netherlands.