From Hercule Poirot to Lady Bracknell.
Actor Davis Suchet is probably best known for playing Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. But now he is taking on a very different role and, it must be said, a rather challenging one. It is the role of the totally wonderful Lady Bracknell is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
He has exchanged his carefully manicured moustache for corsets and high heels. He had made it known that he was looking for a comedy role and was approached to play a part is what is known as the ‘greatest comedy in the British language’ and the role was an iconic one. When he heard which play it was, he was baffled. He knew he was too old to play Algernon or Jack. But he was being offered the iconic role of Lady Bracknell. How could he turn that down?
Cross-dressing in the British theatre
Someone who knows more about the history of the British theatre may be able to enlighten us about exactly why, but men playing women and vice versa has long been acceptable in the UK. In Shakespeare’s day, all the parts were played by men in his plays and cross-dressing was the norm in the pantomime and music halls. (British actors Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel introduced it into the United States in the early twentieth century). And of course any British person born after 1942 was brought up on a literary diet of The Famous Five, in which ‘George’ was actually a girl.
A slice of Oscar Wilde’s life in the play
Despite this being one of my favourite plays, until I heard David Suchet talking about his role, I didn’t realise that Oscar Wilde had made an almost direct reference to his homosexuality in The Importance of Being Earnest. Probably the line of Lady Bracknell’s that everyone knows so well is the shortest – ‘a handbag?’ But, he explained, it was Dame Edith Evans playing the role that made the line so famous. But earlier, the line that followed it was more important. It is:
“As for the particular locality in which the hand bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion – has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now…”
Cloakrooms in railways stations, according to Suchet’s studies into the Victorian life, were often used by homosexual men for assignations.
Which film of the play is the best?
The 2002 version takes some beating. Reese Witherspoon is by far the most successful Cecily and Judi Dench is superb as Lady Bracknell. Rupert Everett makes a fabulous Algernon although an honourable mention must go to Michael Dennison playing the role in the 1952 film. That version also has Margaret Rutherford playing the role of Miss Prism. In addition, Joan Greenwood was probably the best Gwendolyn. In 2002, Colin Firth is excellent as Jack, although probably just a little too grumpy.
YouTube has a rather dire version made in 1986. The person who plays Algy is too warty for anyone to fall in love with and Jack too gloomy in his general demeanour. Although there is one gem of a performance – Amanda Redman’s Gwendolyn. A curious adaptation made in 1964 features Patrick McNee and Ian Carmichael who seem to be far too middled aged but is noteworthy because of the appearance of Fenella Fielding plying a very vampy Gwendolyn and the curious casting of Irene Handl and Wilfred Brambell as Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble.
The Importance of Being Earnest: Video roundup
See the videos below.
2002. Note that this contains some material that was cut from the original play.
Joan Greenwood (on the right) in 1952.
The bizarre 1986 production – worth watching for Amanda Redman