In the week of November 5th the Queen’s English Theatre Company (QETC) put on a number of performances of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the brand-new CC Amstel Theatre in Amsterdam.
Earnest is often seen as Wilde’s cleverest play, and it’s easy to understand why. The storylines are rife with intrigue and cases of mistaken identity. Wilde’s use of language and his skill with double entendres and witticisms is unparalleled. The play features some memorable characters, including the impressive dowager Lady Bracknell who shows uncanny similarities to Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.
QETC adds a number of surprising, creative elements to Wilde’s classic work. They modernize it by equipping their characters with smartphones and peppering the script with references to modern popular culture. The love interests have been gender-swapped so that the relationships around which the will-they-won’t-they plot revolves are now same-sex. Sponsor Intratuin adds a colorful outdoorsy mise-en-scène to the picture.
The play’s plot is uplifting: two men make up alter-egos for themselves so that they can live a bohemian life, while still living up to societal expectations by being responsible and stiff-upper-lip. However, these alter-egos make it difficult for them to embark on romantic relationships because their prospective lovers do not know their true identity. A sharp contrast is created between London, the realm of the party; and country life, where one is supposed to be more reserved. This contrast is highlighted by Intratuin’s beautiful indoor trees.
The play is undoubtedly a comedy and all’s well that ends well. Two happy gay couples dance around the stage, singing along to Mika’s Grace Kelly. The audience feels elated. Then, in the middle of the song and dance sequence, the lights are switched off and the sound is abruptly muted.
On the screen at the back of the room an image of Oscar Wilde appears. On the stage, a man falls to his knees. He is skinny, filthy and disheveled. He does not speak. An audio recording is played:
‘I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;’
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, (V. 1-4)
Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour in prison for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895. He served a full sentence and lived for two more years after his release. His health had been greatly impacted by the harsh conditions of prison and in 1890 he died of meningitis.
Another image emerges: Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist who helped the Allies win World War II and was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for having a romantic homosexual relationship in 1952. He was forced to undergo a hormone treatment to suppress his libido. Turing committed suicide in 1954.
Turing’s picture disappears and the image of a blond young man takes his place. I did not know this man and had to Google him once I got home. It was Matthew Shepard. In 1998, Shepard was studying at the University of Wyoming when two fellow students kidnapped him and beat him up and tortured him. The students left him tied to a fence where he was found hours later. Six days after the assault Matthew Shepard died of the head injuries he had sustained. Like Wilde and Turing, Shepard was gay.
After a few seconds of darkness the lights in the theatre were switched on and the performance was finished. I felt unsettled.
The Importance of Being Earnest is an optimistic play. In 2018 Amsterdam, QETC even saw a chance to turn it into a same-sex love story, and that was enjoyable, beautiful and fun. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve grown up in a bubble of tolerance, where diversity and equality are strived after, if not taken for granted. I think when we take pleasure in these narratives, we overlook the complex, problematic history they emerge from. QETC did a brilliant job of reminding us of our privileged bubble and of puncturing it. I have rarely seen an interpretation of Oscar Wilde that, while modernizing in creative and innovative ways, still stayed so true to what I think is the spirit of his work.