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
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
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
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
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.