Wilde in Leuven / Louvain

Eva Thienpont zag De ideale Ernst of Het belang van een echtgenoot in 't Stuk cultureel centrum. Voor The Oscolars schreef zij een essay over Oscar Wilde en de voorstelling.

Wilde's plays are very seldom performed in Belgium. Asked why, theatre people explain that they are allergic to stuffy old plays that require period costume and period set design. And Wilde's plays, they imply, are dusty old things that cannot be disconnected from their original, Victorian context. A Dutch/Flemish joint venture of theatre companies 't Barre Land and De Onderneming has proved them wrong: Wilde is alive, kicking, and funny as ever ? in modern dress.
Playing Wilde does not require a heap of bibelots, pseudo-antique furniture and draperies. It does not even take a conventional stage, or a red curtain, or plush seats to accommodate his texts. All set designer Michiel Jansen needs is a floor, a horizontal metal bar attached to the ceiling, and leaning against that a number of removable ladder-like frames in which square canvases are inserted, painted with red or green stripes on one side. Furthermore, two comfortable chairs and a small square table on wheels, a tea set, a plate of cucumber sandwiches and a (miniature) handbag can be brought in when necessary. The acting and the text are rich enough to make any additional scenery or props superfluous.
This production also does without ribbons, muffs, bustles, top hats or anything remotely resembling end-of-the-nineteenth-century clothing.  Instead, costume designer Emilie Timmermans has opted for women's trousers, men's suits, dresses and t-shirts that aremodern without looking ordinary. Lord Goring, as a dandy, is not deprived of sartorial eccentricities: at one time he is equipped with an exceptionally long, trailing woollen scarf in the colours of the rainbow, and he dutifully pins on his shirt (through lack of a frock coat) the enormous buttonhole Phipps has provided him with. Algernon wears a flashy blue suit with no shirt underneath and a long silk scarf. Gwendolen and Cecily, when in the country, dress in trousers and bikini tops.
The translations of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest by Peter Kolpa and Martijn Nieuwerf are witty and eloquent, though occasionally casual ('idle' being, for example, translated as 'ijdel', a word that has the same roots as the English original but now carries the meaning of 'vain') and closer to everyday speech than Wilde's original. Surprisingly few lines are cut.  Despite the plays' modern staging, any updating of the nineteenth-century texts is restricted to a translation of 'carriage' by 'wagen' (car). More is not needed to convince an audience that it is watching a play written, so to speak, only yesterday. In line with the style of the translation, the acting is playful, energetic and spontaneous, with room for improvisation – and above all, excellent.
The performance opens with what 't Barre Land and De Onderneming choose to call their 'foreplay'. Three young men seated around a small square table on wheels on which are placed an old-fashioned lamp and a prompt copy declaim, at extraordinary speed, a grotesquely sexual reading of A Florentine Tragedy. As the original text is not generally known, the effect this produces is one of total confusion among the audience, who have no idea what they are hearing and whether this is really Wilde, too. 'Confusion' will turn out to be the key to the entire production.
't Barre Land and De Onderneming have opted for a production that mixes AnIdeal Husband with The Importance of Being Earnest. This means, concretely, that fragments of both plays alternate with each other, which produces a cinematic effect of interwoven narratives. For the sake of practicality in length, the four-act version of Earnest has been given preference over the three-act text.  The performance starts with the first act of An Ideal Husband, and this is followed by the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest. However, as the performance proceeds it moves quicker and quicker between the two plays until, near the end, those spectators not intimately acquainted with both texts hardly know which story they watch unwind a little further.
That this is indeed the intended effect is proved by the way the plays are cast. Most of the actors play parts in both plays. Mabel Chiltern and Gwendolen Fairfax are one and the same person, as are Gertrude Chiltern and Cecily Cardew, Lord Caversham and Lady Bracknell, Jack Worthing and Lady Basildon and Lady Markby, Algernon Moncrieff and Mrs Marchmont and Lady Markby (No. 2; they gave her a double while they were at it), and finally Mason, Phipps and Miss Prism. Although the characters can originally be easily distinguished by the different clothes they wear, costumes are no longer any help to the viewer when the plays draw to their close: by then, the actors have to switch characters so quickly that there is no more time for a change of clothes. Lady Bracknell, for example, cannot shed her skirt for lack of time, which urges Lord Caversham to admonish his son in an aside not to grin at his (partially) cross-dressed father.  When the skirted actor impersonating Lady Bracknell and Lord Caversham addresses the actress wearing Cecily Cardew's bikini top and Gertrude Chiltern'scoat, are we watching Lord Caversham talking to Lady Chiltern, Lady Bracknell talking to Miss Cardew, or who knows, Lord Caversham talking to Cecily or Lady Bracknell talking to Gertrude?  Mabel Chiltern, who is also Gwendolen Fairfax, ends up embracing two men at once – here is one woman just finding herself engaged to both Lord Goring and Ernest Moncrieff, and Gertrude Chiltern passionately embraces Algernon while Sir Robert smiles at both.  The whole situation is utterly delightful in its absurdity – the absurdity of Jack who pretends to be Ernest, is found out to be Jack and turns out to be Ernest after all.
Every absurdity in the text and outside of it is exploited to the full.  Miss Prism appears to have 'stuffed' baby Jack/Ernest into a tiny party purse.  Lord Goring takes his trailing scarf for a walk as if it were a dog on a leash.  All characters have either hermaphroditic or bisexual qualities and comical innuendo abounds. The result of this is that those melodrama tricks Wilde uses, such as the exposure of Mrs Cheveley in Act III by means of the age-old 'noise in the next room', or the device of the brooch that is also a bracelet – things that in a classic staging rely all too heavily upon our willing suspension of disbelief – are easily allowed to 'pass' in a production that merrily embraces artificiality instead of trying to smother it. Likewise, the much-debated philosopher's speech that makes any feminist's hair stand on end is in this production greeted with laughter as the audience interprets it as yet another absurdity in the plays' topsy-turvy world.
This production of 't Barre Land and De Onderneming is a truly Wildëan celebration of multiplicity.  Structurally speaking, a quick succession of epigrams leads up to an utter confusion of plots, names, personalities, lives, loves, sexualities, genders, truths and lies. One hundred year-old humour sparkles; the actors enjoy themselves; the audience is carried away, laughs, wonders and laughs again. Wilde works, and is all the more enjoyable in modern dress.  Moreover, this performance clearly proves that Wilde's plays work best not on paper, nor on screen, but on the stage, which is his true element.  The sheer theatricality of his lines is striking; they work a wonderful complicity between actors and audience. They produce vibrations.  'De ideale Ernst' demonstrates at once the viability and modernity, the timelessness of Oscar Wilde and the creativity and vision of the excellent team that has so skilfully revived two and a half of his plays.