Smock Alley are soon to host a new production of Oscar Wilde’s extravagant and incorrigible magnum opus The Importance of Being Earnest. Part of Smock Alley’s Dinner and a Show series, the silly play about serious issues will receive a sensual overhaul by Kate Canning, fresh from the Spots op West International Theatre Festival where she directed her stage adaptation of Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation. We spoke with Canning about feasting, fashion, frivolity, and other f-words as she prepared to enter rehearsals.
Tell me about Earnest.
We’re just about to go into rehearsals, so I’m sort of busy today, and have been busy getting ready. I had seen a production of this a long time ago, and I wasn’t mad about the production but I loved the aesthetic they had gone for, a sort of Alice in Wonderland style. So it’s not cartoony at all, but I love that aesthetic of being almost a little bit strange. The designer, and the costume designer, and the lighting designer have sort of taken this on board, so everything is almost too perfect. We’re turning the thrust [Smock Alley’s main stage] into a garden, basically. It’s like a perfect garden because everything is manicured very exactly. And then for our costumes, the designer’s really using the period shape but then there will be certain aspects of the costumes that are going to be completely out there, materials you would never have used, like plastic or something, or the shoulders are going to be twice the size they should be. It’s all just a little bit *on drugs* if you know what I mean. *[Laughs]*
There are three acts, and I don’t want set-changing, that drives me nuts. Especially in Smock Alley where you can’t just close a curtain and then go ‘ta-da’. The garden is going to be there all the time, but we’re trying to develop this maze garden. I have this vision in my head of the beginning of the play with this big, classical, anticipatory music and all the actors going in and out of the maze trying to catch each other and falling over each other. Then in between each act the maze changes shape, so for each act the maze is configured differently, which puts us in a new place. So that’s very simple but I hope it works.
What are you aiming to achieve with this production?
I was thinking, who is this for, who will come to see this and why do they want to see it? I suppose we all ask ourselves that question: why do we go and see plays even though it’s ten euro, or twelve euro, or maybe 18 if you’re going to the Gaiety? Because I work in The Gaiety School of Acting, I’m constantly associating with people who are really into theatre. Then eight weeks ago I broke my leg – I was on-stage actually and fell – so I had to get loads of taxis, and ended up talking to every taximan in Dublin. I spent years living in Singapore and London, and when they’d ask me what play I was working on they’d say they’d never heard of it. But here, they ask me what play I’m working on, and I tell them The Importance of Being Earnest, and they’d go, ‘Oh my god, I love that play,’ because everybody knows it. And that kind of hit home with me, that’s who I hope sees the play. I hope every taxi driver in Dublin goes to see it. The important thing is that, if they do come and see it, to make sure they come again and see something else.
What have you found challenging about the process so far?
When you sit down and read the play, you realise this is just so brilliant. It will never grow old. It’s so silly, yet it’s so smart. It’s laugh out loud all the time, and that’s the big challenge with it from my point of view, because comedy wouldn’t be something I’m used to directing. I think the first week with my cast is going to be working that out. Because comedy’s like a train, it has to build and build and build and if it stalls you’re dead, people will give you no mercy on that. So it’s about trying to pick from so many amazingly funny lines the ones that you’re driving towards and peaking on, and you shouldn’t include too many, because then everyone gets sick of the rollercoaster.
What’s the overall feel of this production?
F-words are in my head all the time. So ‘Feast’… I want to make it really feast-y, because food is so important in the play. Wilde uses food to reflect the idea of sex in the play because he couldn’t write about it. It’s all about champagne and crumpets and butter and sugar and that itself is a flirtatious act and a sensual act. I want the sound all the time of people eating and people ooh-ing and ah-ing at the taste of the food and the smell of the food, at the sound of the food, popping champagne corks and the sound of clinking glasses, and on top of that the beautiful poppy-green garden and really colourful costumes, all sensory. I really want to do that in the first week of rehearsals, I don’t even want them saying words, I just want them making sounds, because I see them all with their own sounds. If you were to write a little composition for them they’d all have their own little sound, like Cecily’s lovely, light legato and the big, big bass for Lady Bracknell. And lots of laughter, lots of crying, lots of shouting and gasping. Basically, lots of sounds. That’s what I see.
I’m listening to a lot of music at the moment. I’m really into sound-plots. Of course the piano is very important in the play. We’re building the piano into the garden, so you don’t know it’s a piano first. It looks like a hedge and then suddenly it plays. I had this idea of singing, as if we were in Clubland London in 1890. The sound of it and the excitement of it, compared to the restraint of the country or Lady Bracknell’s house. And then using really strong Haydn or Mozart, hiding-behind-the-trees sort of stuff. And Miss Prism, of course, she is the epitome of sexual repression, yet it’s just so alive in her. We have a younger actress playing her, so we’re going to age her, yet she’s going to have that lovely physicality. We have her in a big grey skirt but then a red slip underneath. I have this idea that Reverend Chasuble gets so on top of her that she’s overwhelmed and just falls back over one of the hedges, and she gets up and all you see is the red. I want to get back to the visual, I want all that colour coming through.
Is it difficult to work between the comedy of the play and the more serious messages it has?
Obviously I’m on board with fact that this is an incredibly smart play – if it wasn’t smart it wouldn’t still be here – but I don’t want this play to be restating anything. At the end of the day, what Wilde does is use the humour to get across the more serious message. So like that I want to keep my play very light, very energetic, very frivolous, very melodramatic really.
It’s interesting that you mention so many Irish people know and love the play when it’s set in aristocratic England over a hundred years ago. It’s amazing that it still resonates so well with Irish people today.
That’s true. And it’s not just with the Irish, it does that with every society. That’s why it’s so smart: it doesn’t talk to one people, or even one age bracket, it talks to everyone. I hope children will come to see this, they’ll find it hilarious. Because everyone can relate to those themes of expectation and the irrelevance of the identities that we force upon each other, and the need to fit into the constraints that you do. Only Wilde can take credit for the fact that it talks to everyone not only in Ireland but all over the world.
You’re just entering rehearsals, how do you see the whole show panning out?
It’s hard to know yet. I mean, obviously we’re very sure of the aesthetic. Now it’s just process, I mean I don’t know what I’m expecting yet. I know what my thoughts are but I’m open to those thoughts changing. There’s so much talk about what a director is and all the different ways of directing, but at the end of the day your job is to tell the story and build this vehicle for everyone else to go off in and make it happen. You just keep some shape on it, and keep it moving. Especially a play like this that has such personality. I’m going to let the play do what it does. With new writing, you’ve a tendency to put your own take on it, because it’s younger, it’s like a child. This is a granny, what are you going to do with this one? [Laughs] You don’t want to be insulting her!
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest runs until Saturday 22nd August at 7.30pm each night, with matinees each Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm at Smock Alley Theatre, Exchange Street Lower, Temple Bar, Dublin 8. Tickets are €15/12 (concessions) as well as dinner and a show on Thursday and Friday nights (€30) or brunch and a show on Sunday matinees (€25).
Words: Eoin Moore
Photos: Tom Maher