Poet W.H. Auden’s notion that Oscar Wilde’s last play is “the only pure verbal opera in English” has not gone unnoticed by director/actor Brian Bedford who finds much Mozart in the frothy farce that opened to a delighted full house last night.
Drilling a little deeper, such same-sounding characters as Bastien/Bastienne or Papageno searching for his Papagena can’t hold a candle to the trio of Ernests (two dramatic, one real) that drive much of the hilarious action even as English society is pilloried with unstinting volleys of satire (“Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”).
The music heard (Berthold Carrière’s brass-hued entr’actes are at one with the play’s style and tone) is especially apt in the opening sequence. Lumbering onto Desmond Heeley’s sumptuous—if pastel-driven—morning-room set, manservant Lane (Robert Persichini) wordlessly endures the unbearable attempts at music-making from an aging piano (that was tuned at the factory but never again) of his master Algernon Moncrieff (poached Shavian Mike Shara in his Stratford début). Persichini’s body language and visage (and whoever crafted the anguished score) deserve a special place in the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame (no “Die Zauberklavier” here). Mozart, who surely endured worse from his well-paying aristocratic pupils, would have howled his delight, but not in the boyish giddiness of Tom Hulce’s Amadeus overkill. Yet from that point forward, what Wilde’s opus, necessarily, doesn’t have are reflective arias, where the words matter less than the tune but no one ever complains. Instead, the three acts are a brilliant series of unending recitatives which, nonetheless, require careful attention to pulse, rhythm and pauses in order to achieve the playwright’s intended result.
Beyond the closeness of names and flow of text, the importance of disguise further binds the operas to the plays. Gender bending was the expected norm in Shakespeare’s day; for Mozart men acting as women and vice versa produced countless laughs (famously, Despina’s charade as the Doctor in Cosi fan tutte). That queer-to-some tradition is most certainly reinforced and enhanced by the many men who have donned wigs, hats and hoopskirts to portray Lady Bracknell—perhaps the very first “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and most surely a singular Queen of the Night. For his/her part, Bedford is a woman to admire and revere. With a strong matriarchal tone (requiring a tad more soprano to achieve perfection), unfailing timing and withering looks, Bedford’s seasoned brilliance dares the others to keep pace.
And to a very large extent they do.
Sarah Todd’s Miss Prism is beautifully crafted. As the second act opens, her tone and demeanour towards Cecily Cardew (Andrea Runge, engagingly straightforward as required) is as severe as her pulled-back hair and as prim as her tutor’s garb (the costumes and wigs are a special joy all in themselves). Magically, she morphs in a flash to a giddy schoolgirl with the equally childlike entrance of the “celibate” Reverend Canon Chasuble (superbly done by Stephen Ouimette) whose blushing-giveaway metaphor (“I would hang upon her lips”) is very nearly the funniest gag of the whole affair.
With the arrival at the country manor of Cecily’s new best friend, Gwendolyn Fairfax (only the occasional accent misfire from British to the American South mars Sara Topham’s performance), the humour shifts into high gear. Like an operatic bedroom comedy, the players are presented largely in pairs before the last-act finale brings everyone back for a wonderfully unbelievable conclusion, chock-a-block full of incredible revelations that work steadily and unstoppably toward the last title-touting line.
Funny and adroit as the heroines are, it falls to the men to carry much of the action and nearly all of the madcap plot.
Curly locked Shara delivers a first-rate depiction of the boyish Algernon who deftly avoids his Aunt Augusta’s (a.k.a. Lady Bracknell) tedious dinner parties through the complete invention of a conveniently sick friend, Bunbury, whose death’s-door attacks conveniently demand the caring, penniless playboy’s bedside attention.
Similarly, John Worthing (yet again, Ben Carlson demonstrates his wide-ranging versatility) has invented a wayward brother, Ernest, so as to have a ready excuse to get away from the country (where eighteen-year-old Cecily is his doting ward) and kick up his heels in London: in the city he’s Ernest and when at home, Jack.
Smitten with Gwendolyn (Lady Brackwell’s daughter), the hijinks begin in, er, earnest, when she reveals that only a man named Ernest could ever win her hand. Incredibly, that is the same requirement for the alluring Cecily, who inspires love-at-first-sight when Algernon (masquerading as John’s made-up brother, Ernest), unexpectedly drops in to the country estate.
In this production, the wily playwright and veteran director are as one in their shared love of mirth and mayhem. At nowhere else but the opera would such intended silliness result in masterpiece theatre. JWR
Ever Yours, Oscar
Tom Patterson Theatre
June 20, 2009
It has often been said that to truly know artists of any discipline, one should study/experience their work and read their correspondence—everything else (commentaries, reviews, biographies, et cetera) is, necessarily, a filtered view or interpretation from varying degrees of informed opinion.
Of course, the work and correspondence that may be available is also incomplete—only the artists know for sure what they meant to communicate or who, in fact they are. Quite a lot of them are driven to their livelihoods for the quest of self-discovery, or as Oscar Wilde famously opined, “Only the shallow know themselves.”
Complier Peter Wylde has selected a varied number of letters from his near-namesake’s personal writings and painted a fascinating portrait of the writer who acted on “The love that dare not speak its name” and received two years’ hard labour for his efforts of suing his chief tormenter (the Marquess of Queensberry) whose son, Lord Alfred Douglas (affectionately known as Bosie who penned the oft-quoted phrase in his 1894 poem, Two Loves) who’d so captivated the flamboyant playwright’s heart.
Not surprisingly, and in a manner that the notorious dandy would have appreciated, the selections are rich in irony. “I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face,” wrote Wilde during his triumphant 1882 lecture tour of the United States. Thirteen (his self-admitted lucky number) years later, the beginning of his own jail term redefined the notion of unexpected foreshadowing.
In director/performer Brian Bedford there is possibly no finer advocate for the Irish bad boy around the globe today. Not just reading, but clearly acting the lines, Bedford’s solo delivery—notably its superlative pauses to allow either the dark humour or tragic revelations to sink in—was impassioned and caring throughout. Also directing and acting in this year’s comedic gem, The Importance of Being Earnest, playing Lady Bracknell, the famous quote from the infamous trailblazer, “Artists have gender but art has none,” rings with extra meaning and truth. JWR