DEK: A Q&A with the guest director of the upcoming Phoenix Theatre production
Alistair Newton is a UVic alumnus and the guest director for the Phoenix’s Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Despite the play’s original run being cut short due to Wilde’s infamous arrest, The Importance of Being Earnest has become one of the most frequently revived comedies of the past century. A satire of Victorian society, the play follows a series of comedic misunderstandings of the cast falling in love.
Newton and I met ahead of opening night to discuss his direction for the revival of the famous play.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What makes The Importance of Being Earnest so popular?
It’s one of those shows that has always been popular, spanning 130 years. It was a huge hit when it was first done, and it’s still popular now … Partly because it’s so funny, and it’s still so funny. I would argue that part of the reason it’s stayed so popular is because it is a really brilliant mixture of populism and subversion. Wilde is satirizing the very society who came to watch the show … It’s a miraculous balancing act between transgression and straight up populism … Even if the play is almost never produced in a way that highlights that dichotomy and juxtaposition, it’s still there, and I think that is part of why it continues to be relevant and why it continues to be successful.
What’s your take on The Importance of Being Earnest as a director?
I think that it gets revived so often that it’s almost a meme and not a play. People bring so many ideas to the play, to Oscar Wilde, to the period itself … This baggage and these ideas we have about Wilde have very little to do with the play. For example, if you Google [The Importance of Being Earnest], you will find 1 000 productions and they more or less all look the same. Lots of heavy velvet curtains and doilies and too much furniture. Oscar Wilde himself was a reformer for interior design. He believed in a kind of minimalism which we wouldn’t recognize as minimalism now, but if you look at his ideas about interior design, they’re about elegance, about sophistication. I wanted to break through the baggage and the ideas we have about the period and get at something that is more reflective of Wilde.
Is it a challenge to avoid modernizing a play like The Importance of Being Earnest while making sure audiences catch the double entendre that Wilde wrote for a 19th century audience?
It’s all in the way you say it. That’s what’s so great about how beautifully it is written. It’s very playable for the actors. I’ve made a few cuts, I’ve cut a couple things that are references that are just impossible to make a contemporary audience get, but it’s very intact … He couldn’t put queer content into the play. It was illegal. It was called ‘gross-indecency.’ It’s what he got charged with and put in jail for. But he could write in code … [For example] everytime someone talks about France and Paris, it’s code for queerness. When you watch the show, pay attention to any time somebody talks about France or Paris. What do they really mean? What are they really saying?
How do you balance the niche references of the original time period encoded into the play with modern surface-level appeal and understanding?
I used to be really stubborn about it in my early work. I was always upset at people who said, ‘Oh that choice was arbitrary.’ I would go ‘No! It means this very obscure thing, you just didn’t get it.’ Because I used to care less about the surface reading, and I was only trying to get people to understand the hidden meaning, the code … As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I find it much easier to not to be so stubborn about having to make the work so dense that you need a cultural studies PhD to understand the references. I’ve gotten into the fun of populist work, of bringing an avant garde sensibility to populist work. If you look at my portfolio, it’s a mix of really avant garde stuff with really populist stuff, and I’ve started to get into the fun of ‘how can I subvert material that people think they know?’ Part of that is to get that balancing act correct. One of the great people you can learn from about how to do that is Oscar Wilde.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs Nov. 9–24. Tickets can be purchased on the Phoenix Theatre’s website.