How do you even begin staging one of the most oft-performed plays of all time?
Oscar Wilde’s 1895 masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest has been done with an all-male cast, all-black cast, all-nude cast, with puppets, as an opera, as a musical, and been adapted for film and TV.
Well, Adrian Noble’s new production at the Vaudeville Theatre has come up with a humdinger: the role of Lady Bracknell, arguably Wilde’s finest creation, is played by David Suchet, a.k.a. Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
While it’s not the first time a man has stepped into these shoes, the casting is a stroke of genius. Not only is there as much fun to be had in subverting one of our most accomplished tragedy actors as Wilde had mocking the upper classes, but Suchet makes for a perfect Bracknell. His blend of Maggie Thatcher and Hyacinth Bucket dominates the stage.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick rundown: a pair of dandies, a pair of lovelies, a battle-axe and a handbag in two hours of duplicity, farfetched coincidence, satire and sharp wit.
In making the decision of having Lady Bracknell in drag, Noble has amped up the camp factor for the rest to keep up. Forget the drily witty Victorian approach most commonly employed, and steady yourself for a sprightly romp that revels in its own silliness.
Thankfully, the cast throw themselves into the spirit of it, and reap the rewards. Imogen Doel (Cecily) and Michele Dotrice as (Miss Prism) dial the crazy up to stratospheric levels, earning most of the non-Bracknell laughs. Emily Barber delivers Gwendolen’s line about never having seen a spade with such bourgeois pride it almost brings the house down.
But it’s not just the women (per se) that make this a success. Michael Benz as John/Earnest and Philip Cumbus as Algernon make a fabulous pair of fops, whether exchanging catty quips or stuffing themselves with muffins and yelling at each other.
Even Peter McKintosh’s set gets in on the OTT act, marrying solid Victoriana with backdrops so unreal they’re almost cartoons. If this all sounds like a nightmare, it’s far from it. While the script is the crème de la crème of social satire, it never forgets its sense of style and fun. Noble’s approach is therefore fitting as well as entertaining.
Of course, most of the credit here goes to Wilde, whose endlessly quotable script has enthralled audiences and actors alike for 120 years. While it opened to great acclaim, the play was soon shut down amidst the scandalous revelations of its playwright’s sexuality, and was not performed again in his lifetime.
Though only the latest in a line of many, this production proves that you can’t keep a good man (or woman) down.
Performed on Wednesday 1 July 2015 at the Vaudeville Theatre in London.
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