Oh, he’s loving this. He is having the time of his life. It’s rare to see an actor display such absolute unrepentant glee at a curtain call as David Suchet does here. He has practised an absurdly funny curtsey, one finger pressed to the side of his mouth like a powdered Dr. Evil, and he does it about five times to a baying crowd.
And well he might. Stunt casting schmunt casting, Suchet beams as Lady Bracknell, glowering across the stage and firing off dirty looks as if the pressure of outrage behind the corsetry has finally risen to bursting point. He’s surprisingly restrained at the beginning of each of his two appearances, his voice lower and calmer than most post-Edith Evans Bracknells, but building as scandal heaps on scandal until the familiar goggle-eyed screech breaks out across the room. Suchet remembers that Bracknell is not a moraliser, that she is instead Earnest’s Lord Henry, her own diabolism being the creation of perfect social order rather than the pursuit of perfect pleasure. His Bracknell is a buttoned-up libertine of social hygiene, and it’s wonderful.
The problem every production of The Importance of Being Earnest faces, or certainly any production which chooses to place its Bracknell front and centre, is that her stage time is cruelly limited. She storms onto stage in the first and final acts, dominating it utterly, and there is a serious danger of her absence for the remaining bulk of running time being too much for a production to bear. Wilde’s script may be his theatrical masterpiece, but to paraphrase Alan Bennett on one of his own early comedies, it is essentially a life support machine for good jokes. Extraordinarily good jokes, but jokes all the same. Its structure is that of a farce, but its stakes are content to languish in brilliant paradox and inversion – it is too refined and removed, too absolutely Jean des Esseintes, for physical and emotional exertion.
Adrian Noble’s production initially seems to have run headfirst into the pitfall, with a first act that stutters and starts apologetically, as neither Michael Benz’s Jack nor Philip Cumbus’ Algernon raising anything bigger than a titter from an audience who, after all, may not know all of the jokes in advance, but can certainly guess the punchlines when they get started. There’s nothing deathly in either performance, but there’s none of the energy or charm needed to lift them above simple mouthpieces for Wilde’s wit and expositional groundwork.
The same seems to apply to Emily Barber’s turn as Gwendolyn at first, but while neither Benz nor Cumbus ever really spring into life, Barber’s performance blooms with considerable skill in the second act, where she is joined by a stunning performance by Imogen Doel as Cecily. Initially faceless and placid, Barber’s Gwendolyn matures into a supurb miniature of her mother as the play progresses, until every mannerism and inflection can be seen as a junior to Suchet’s. Doel finds the sweet spot between dappy dippiness and fierce determination in Cecily, sugar-sweet but with the constant threat of violence. The play’s most ‘modern’ character, here she seems about to explode out of the 19th century, and you can’t take your eyes off her.
Almost defiantly unspectacular, the highlights of Noble’s production are the highlights of the play – Bracknell’s interview with Jack, Gwendolyn’s with Cecily, the business about the muffins. It starts slightly too slowly and stays slightly too long, but Earnest is still probably the funniest stage comedy written between the birth of Christ and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, so it’s hard to sniff too hard.
Perhaps in an effort to remove all possible obstructions to Suchet’s total stage takeover, there are a few elements of the production that disappoint, most notably a genuinely horrid set from designer Peter McKintosh. Neither Algy’s flat, Jack’s garden nor his Drawing Room look convincing, with the garden looking genuinely cheap with its wrinkled, photo-printed cyclorama. Elsewhere, sofas, tables and other set dressings are arranged facing straight out to the stage as if mounted on a grid, and the entire construction falls hard between the twin stools of realism and artificiality. It’s hardly incumbent on it to make any kind of point, but its ugliness is actually distracting. Wilde, master of interior design, would have had kittens.
With a few more performances as formidable as Suchet and Doel’s and a more sympathetic design this could be a truly important Earnest, but with flaws that are only magnified by the play’s ubiquity, it’s something of a missed opportunity.
But oh, the curtseys. Go for the play, stay for the curtain call.