The Importance of Being Earnest
A trivial comedy for serious people
Review – Niall R Palmer
When Nimax Theatres announced way back in early 2014 that David Suchet would be playing perhaps the grandest of Oscar Wilde’s great harridans, Lady Bracknell, surprisingly few plucked eyebrows were raised. The definitive Poirot and RSC/NT regular Suchet is a gifted and highly respected actor, and most were sure his feet would easily fit heels filled by the likes of Dames Judi Dench, Edith Evans and Maggie Smith. The fact that they don’t is a crime-de-théâtre that Poirot himself might struggle to solve.
The difficulties with Oscar Wilde’s three act play, The Importance of Being Earnest, are several: Act one is largely a tangle of exposition, witty dialogue and Widle’s trademark sparkling one-liners. Much of the wit is now so much part of the theatrical lexicon that the punch it once delivered is now more of a dainty slap on the wrist. Several audience members seemed to be guffawing even before the lines had been spoken.
Wilde’s somewhat sparse stage directions describe Algernon Moncrieff’s flat in Half-Moon Street as “luxuriously and artistically furnished.” Sadly it seems nobody has told the show’s producers this, and the play opens with a rather barren sense of luxury. What should be opulent, looks austere. The early exchanges between Algernon (played like a city trader by Philip Cumbus) and John Worthing (Michael Benz) are jarring and instead of entertainingly over-blown and over-privileged, the characters are simply dislikeable.
John (or rather Jack….or Ernest) and Algernon seem both to have things to hide: Algernon has committed that greatest of upper class sins in being “rather short of funds”, and Jack has a secret ward, somewhere in the country who may be his elderly little aunt from Tunbridge Wells, or may be an attractive eighteen year old young lady called Cecily.
The open scenes are so burdened with exposition to make it the least engaging of the three acts, at least comically. With the play starting to lag (cucumber sandwiches and plot clues are only entertaining for so long), Lady Bracknell arrives – a velociraptor in a velvet bustle. At first, it seems the evening is saved, with Suchet adding a much needed flash of colour to proceedings. Sadly, any relief is short lived. It becomes quickly and painfully clear that Suchet is as uncomfortable in a corset as he is in a female role. His manner is studied and his delivery rifle-like, spitting out words as staccato bullets, thereby stemming the natural flow of Wilde’s wonderful put-downs.
There is respite in a bitingly funnily and impeccably delivered interview, from a seated Lady Bracknell with deadly interrogative style – perhaps channelling Poirot himself. But when John Worthing says later “I would like to be allowed to take advantage of Lady Bracknell’s temporary absence…” I did rather find myself agreeing.
The set for Act Two chimes much more harmoniously with Wilde’s description of an old fashioned garden, full of roses. The set’s perspective, and a projected backdrop lends a fragrant air of summer to subsequent scenes. Act One is soon forgotten in a deliriously comic romp through Worthing’s country estate. Imogen Doel as Cecily Cardew is a revelation as Jack’s eighteen year old ward. Her voice is as light as a feather, and every word, every line, is delivered with utter mischief and innocent joy.
Mistaken identities ensue. Doel combines naivity and knowing wit in replying to Algernon that “The three [letters] you wrote me after I had broken off the engagement are so beautiful, and so badly spelled, that even now I can hardly read them without crying a little.”
It is the female actors who truly bring this comedy to life. Michelle Dotrice lends a twinkling charm to Cecily’s portly governess, Miss Prism. Emily Barber’s Hon Gwendolen Fairfax has a haughty grandeur, commanding the stage from the moment she sets foot upon it. Her voice is like birdsong, but with enough rich, deep colour to give a delicious wickedness to the wonderful Wilde line “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
The third act moves indoors to a magnificent Drawing-Room at the Manor House, Woolton. Quite how the set designer who created such austerity in Act One made such a wonderfully gifted success of the second and third acts just adds to the mystery of this version. The play highlights somewhat uncomfortably, how much and yet how little has changed for Britain’s financial elite, with property “in town” as well as in the country and the idea that there is an “unfashionable side of Belgrave Square.”
What could ultimately be a towering production of The Importance of Being Earnest is overshadowed by the very thing upon which the show’s producers have hung their reputation. As Gwendolen says, “Mamma has a way of coming back suddenly into a room…” and this is true enough, with the reappearance of Lady Bracknell in Act Three.
Wilde himself describes Lady Bracknell as a woman who “sweeps out in majestic indignation”. Suchet’s Bracknell is more royal navy than royal family, putting one rather more in mind of a cross-dressing red admiral than a Nymphalidae monarch butterfly. There is nothing subtle, nothing mischievous in his portrayal and as John Worthing says, “I don’t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one.” Sadly in this case, it is perhaps less Gorgon and more Gorgonzola.
From 24 June until 7 November 2015
Niall R Palmer