Eric Barnes in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Phoenix Theatre (photo: Dean Kalyan)

The Importance of Being Earnest — Oscar Wilde’s timeless comic masterpiece — has long been celebrated for its sharp humour and daring social commentary. But despite being over a century old and a justifiable mainstay of Western theatre, Earnest has surprisingly never before been mounted at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre.

Running November 9-25, this production debut promises an uproarious evening where identity, transition and transformation collide. Yet despite Victorian Britain’s reservations, modern audiences continue to adore and embrace Wilde’s brilliant play for its enduring humour and relevance.

A transgressive satire

In this fresh take on Wilde’s play, guest alumni director Alistair Newton explores the hidden layers and remarkable queerness that underscore the relationships among the characters. Instead of sticking to traditional Victorian aesthetics, Netwon dives into a dramatic world filled with melodrama, secret codes and playful contradictions, breaking free from the usual clichés associated with this era.

 A perennially popular production that has never gone out of style since its 1895 debut. What’s the appeal for a very contemporary director like Newton?

“Aside from the obvious answer that it has got to be one of the greatest works of comic writing in the English language, it’s also a work coded with all sorts of transgressive satire—much of which would only have been legible to those members of the audience with the right ear to hear it,” he says. “Populism with a wicked satirical edge has always been irresistible to me.”

Earnest director Alistair Newton (photo: Carly Lemmon)

Syrah Khan (left) & Carter Lapham in The Importance of Being Earnest (photo: Dean Kalyan)

Reevaluating the 19th century

Newton, who is also teaching Theatre’s fall elective on drag culture and was just announced as a director for the prestigious Shaw Festival’s 2024 season, says he enjoys “excavating the hidden histories and secret codes” of what’s often described as classical theatre.

Earnest is so constantly revived that it almost feels like a meme at this point, rather than a play,” he explains. “True, the 19th century gave us hysterical sexual repression and the codification of rigid gender roles, but it also gave us radicals who rebelliously pushed back—like the pioneering sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the Danish artist and trans woman Lili Elbe, and William Dorsey Swann, an enslaved black activist and drag performer who was likely the first person to refer to himself as a ‘queen’.”

Something quarrellous, something queer

In an era when RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a global TV sensation and drag artists regularly appear everywhere from restaurant brunches to library readings, Newton feels Earnest will definitely resonate with Phoenix audiences.

“Oscar Wilde loved a paradox, and both his legacy and the history of Earnest has sort of become one: at the time of his arrest for ‘gross indecency’, Wilde had two hit shows running in the West End and had completely conquered mainstream boulevard entertainment in London — but, at the same time, his queerness was considered so scandalous by his society that they had to forcibly remove him from their midst.”

From left: Samantha Frew, Syrah Khan &  Claudia Fraser (photo: Dean Kalyan) 

Alumni in the house

Finally, as a returning alumni, how does it feel for Newton to be back at the Phoenix — both directing and teaching? “A lot of things change in a couple of decades, but some things are exactly how I left them: the graffiti on the scene shop wall and the very particular smell as you first enter the Roger Bishop Theatre,” he quips.

“But I think my favourite change is something I perceive in the students: they seem much more willing to advocate for themselves and to challenge orthodoxies, ideas of canon and the educational status quo. At the risk of sounding like an old queen, the kids definitely seem alright to me.”

The Importance of Being Earnest runs November 9-25 at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre