A few months ago, Mirinda sent me a link to an ad for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest with David Suchet playing Lady Bracknell. This was an opportunity too good to miss. I bought a couple of tickets straight away. And tonight was the night.
I reckon it’s a testament to Oscar Wilde’s genius that I can still find the play funny given I played Jack for so many performances over the years, have seen countless other productions of it and know more about the play than is really necessary. It is still meticulously funny and a frothy delight from start to finish.
In our last production (a musical version) Mirinda cast a male as Lady B. Sadly, while he showed a lot of promise, he never actually learned his lines and had to be replaced at the last moment by the life saving Maxine. This was the closest we ever came to seeing a male Lady B. Until tonight. And it was marvellous…though with reservations.
Of course there was that incredibly annoying moment when David Suchet first stepped onto the stage and the audience applauded him before he’d done more than walk a few steps. I seriously think he should have turned his most imperious Bracknellian stare onto the audience in an effort to silence the ridiculousness. Sadly he just put up with it. Once this pointless applause had died away, the Suchet performance could be judged properly.
I have to admit to being a bit disappointed. While he looked fantastic, moved with all the slow determination of a Victorian battleship and had the sort of stare that could melt aristocratic conventions, his voice lacked projection and some of the choices on line delivery were baffling. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy his performance! He was, of course, superb but when you witness such a brilliant actor, it’s only right that the bar of criticism be set a lot higher than for others yet to make their mark.
Of course, there’s also the Handbag Question. It must be the worst line in the world to have to deliver. It may only be two words (and one of them ‘a’) but after Dame Edith Evans and her perfect 1952 delivery…
…it’s impossible to improve upon. How actors must squirm inside as the line approaches and then quiver with relief having sailed passed relatively unscathed.
Well, David Suchet decided (or the director, Adrian Noble, decided – though it was possibly both of them working together) to see it as humorous with Lady B going into a fit of girlish giggles. I didn’t think this worked at all. Far better to emulate Dame Edith than giving us this travesty! Lady B laughing? This is something one only expects to see on the more unbelievable episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Here is what I think is the perfect post-Evans delivery: Just before the line, make sure your back is to Jack so after his feed line, your back can stiffen noticeably and you stand ramrod straight. You now very slowly and deliberately turn to face him as if about to explode. At this stage, an experienced actor can gauge what the audience is expecting. If there is a rising expectation, the actor can give them a knowing glance before launching into the perfect imitation of Dame Edith’s delivery. If there is no audience expectation, the delivery can be the same and no harm will be done. Imitation, after all, is the highest form of flattery.
Of the rest of the cast, I rather liked Imogen Doel as Cecily with her insanity masked by an innocence bred in the spade-ridden country. Also Michele Dotrice as Miss Prism was a delight and very, very funny. Her flapping wrists were extraordinary.
It took me a while to warm to Jack (Michael Benz) but, by his entrance in Act II, in full mourning garb, I was hooked. He had been manacled by the idiotic delight of Algernon (a sparklingly idiotic Philip Cumbus) in Act I but upon the announcement of his brother’s death, he shed the shackles and shone a lot brighter.
Speaking of Jack, it was very noticeable that the two actors with the proper level of projection were Jack and Gwendoline (Emily Barber). While the rest of the cast could be heard, they didn’t reach the clarity and volume of these two. For that alone, I’m going to give them the greatest praise. How many times was it drummed into me that it doesn’t matter how good your performance, it’s pointless if no-one can hear you. That makes it sound really bad when it wasn’t, really. It’s just that Jack and Gwendoline were, vocally, very good.
All up, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as, I think, did the rest of the audience except perhaps the chap in front of me who leapt out of his seat as the curtain went down at the end, clearly not thinking the cast deserved an applause…not even of any kind.
We MUST remember NOT to book seats under the circle the next time we visit the Vaudeville.