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Not that Wilde about the Importance of Being Earnest



Review by David Munro

EVER since the John Gielgud production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1939, Lady Bracknell has hi-jacked the play.

Intended by Wilde as comedy of manners, designed for the comedic talents of one of the actor managers of the period, the plot revolves around the attempts of two effete and impoverished young men about town, John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, to wed two heiresses, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew.

Lady Bracknell is the mother of Gwendolen, whom Jack wishes to marry, and her relevance to the plot is to ensure that by marrying Jack Worthing, whose antecedents are unknown, Gwendolen does not commit a social gaffe and get ostracised from society.

The play must be viewed in perspective to the era within which it was written.

In Victorian and Edwardian times, society was a very close-knit club whose membership was governed by wealth and position.

To those in society, and in particular the women, any marriage outside the ranks had to be scrutinised against, and approved within the mores of the milieu, or there would have been dreadful - in their terms of reference - results if a misalliance was entered into.

Against this background, Lady Bracknell's catechism of Jack Worthing, as to his birth and position, would have been understood and, indeed, expected by the majority of the women who attended the first night in February 1895.

They would have seen nothing unusual about it, as indeed it would have been so accepted by the actress playing the part.

It is perhaps worthy of note that Rose Leclercq, the original Lady Bracknell, was hardly mentioned by the critics at the time, although she was described by a contemporary actress as being the natural Grande Dame of the stage, with all the polish and innate dignity of the true lady.

This is the key to Lady Bracknell, as Wilde intended he,r and how indeed she was played up until the fabled 1939 production.

It was not a first for John Gielgud, who had played John Worthing in 1930, when the Lady Bracknell was played by his Aunt, Mabel Terry- Lewis, another Grande Dame actress of the old school, who acted the part perfectly seriously and, having no idea that the lines were funny, wondered at what the audience were laughing.

Sir John told me many years later that, in his opinion, his aunt was the best Lady Bracknell in his lifetime, for that reason.

Edith Evans, however, came from quite a different background and envisaged Lady Bracknell as one of the nouveau riche women of her era, who were arrogant caricatures of the women in the pre-First World War society and played it accordingly, thereby turning it from a comedy of manners into a comedy of bad manners.

Her performance, as preserved by Anthony Asquith's 1952 film of the play, has been the prototype followed, more or less, by those who have succeeded her in the part and who, in the main, have been comediennes rather than straight actresses.

In fact, the play as it is now performed, might as well be re-titled The Self Importance of Lady Bracknell.

The current tour, now at Richmond, is a case in point as it is advertised as a starring vehicle for Wendy Craig, the Lady Bracknell in the production, with above-the-line credits being given to Frank Middlemass, as Canon Chasuble, and Josephine Tewson, as Miss Prism, relatively minor characters in the plot, as conceived by Wilde.

I do not mean this as any slur upon them or their performances, which I will discuss in a moment, but merely to illustrate how, over the years, the emphasis of the play, and its plot, have shifted.

Having got that off my chest, one must not lose sight of the fact that the main reason the play was written was to make money for Wilde and to achieve this it had to amuse. Taking the second criterion first, how does this production shape up?

The answer is reasonably well. Wendy Craig, although lacking imperiousness, is a very attractive Lady Bracknell and plays the part as it was intended.

A caring, concerned mother, who delivers her lines with insouciance, rendering them devastatingly funny. Hers is a performance to treasure and one hopes that she has broken the mould and that, henceforth, Lady Bracknell will revert to the character Wilde created.

Hattie Ladbury makes Gwendolen a chip off the old block and leaves no doubt as to who will rule the roost after she marries Jack Worthing.

At the same time, she brings a delightfully funny artificiality to the scene where she and Olive Darnley, as Cecily Cardew, cross swords in the mistaken belief they are both engaged to the same man.

Josephine Tewson also plays Miss Prism straight and the part benefits from the treatment, making her a more pathetic and real woman than she is usually played. A beautiful performance and also very funny.

All three women are a delight and I wish I could say the same about the men.

Sadly, neither Adam James, as Algernon, nor Andrew Havill, as John Worthing, has the style or charm required for the parts.

They both give performances more suitable for a Coward play than Wilde. They say the lines with an artificiality, which renders them unfunny and unbelievable.

I agree that the characters, as written, are poseurs to a certain extent, but basically they are intended to have some semblance of reality beneath the masks and this is missing from these performances.

Frank Middlemass was, from where I was sitting, inaudible, but apart from that, I could not believe that even Miss Prism could find him attractive. He played him as a bumbling buffoon, rather than the unctuous, well-meaning cleric that Wilde created.

The play was set, for no apparent reason, in 1912, so it was somewhat surprising to find that Algernon's flat was decorated in quasi-Japanese style, which would have been appropriate in 1895, when the play was written, but not, I feel, some 17 years later, when the Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement was fashionable.

To sum up, Christopher Luscombe's direction did not, in my view, create a coherent whole.

The evening, for me, was made by the ladies in the cast; without them, it would have been a very lacklustre event.

As it was, I came away pleasantly entertained, but not overwhelmed, and with a feeling that it could have been so much better if Wilde's intentions had been followed more faithfully. One cannot disregard the importance of being Oscar.

The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
Directed by Christopher Luscombe; Designed by Simon Higlett; Lighting, Paul Pyant; Sound, Mike Beer.
WITH: Wendy Craig; Frank Middlemass; Josephine Tewson; Olivia Darnley; Andrew Havill; Adam James; Hattie Ladbury; Edmund Kente; Nick Lucas; David Windle.
Producer - Theatre Royal Bath Productions .
Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey.
Mon, March 15 - Sat, 20, 2004
Mon - Sat 7.45 pm Mat: Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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