It begins in Earnest

EarnestThe Importance of Being Earnest, Vaudeville Theatre, London, 7th October 2015

After David Suchet’s divinely-inspired appearance last month, popping up on the tube opposite me, while I weighed-up the wisdom of this entire challenge, his turn as Lady Bracknell deserved to be the first off the list.

He and the rest of the cast didn’t disappoint.

Working with such great comic writing, demonstrated by the number of lines that have seeped into common discourse, one might imagine this makes the actors’ jobs rather straightforward.

Yet the popularity of the play and the number of legendary screen and stage performances by the likes of Edith Evans and John Gielgud must make the task all the harder.

With that historical baggage, I felt Suchet underplayed the histrionics for a more subtle approach to ‘the Gorgon’. Instead of declaiming ‘A handbag!’, he winced at hearing the word and spat it with poisonous understatement. The unfortunate condition of Jack’s appearance, ‘handles or not’, in the world acts as a vivid reminder of her own very humble beginnings.

Bracknell presents herself as the gatekeeper of timeless upper-class values and habits, but in truth has clambered up the social ladder through a combination of calculation and cunning. Occasionally, she lets slip the veil and the venality and opportunism of social standing is revealed.

The exposure of such hypocrisy and the searching satire of marriage and other Victorian social institutions confound the idea that Earnest is a trifling thing. The title and sub-title, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, set up the text for a constant interplay between notions of ethical importance and utter triviality as seen through the (Miss) prism of morally-bankrupt social climbers and moneyed indolent wastrels.

Earnest was Wilde’s last theatrical work. His conflict with the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his younger lover ‘Bosie’, burst into public attention when Wilde sued for libel against Queensberry’s hand-written claim that he was “posing as a Somdomite [sic]”.

Wilde lost, was condemned to hard labour in Reading Goal, and after his release died broken and bankrupt a few years later in Paris aged 46.

A brutally young age for such a creative spirit, but as Stephen fry recounts in his dedicated Wilde podcast, this was a man who was talked about as an undergraduate on his arrival in England.

Probably to late to catch this performance of the play now* but catch it when you can.

Thank you the Theatre Gods, thank you David Suchet, thank you Oscar Wilde.

1 down. 100 to go.

What a start.

* I am publishing these blogs in June 2016 – several months after starting the challenge – now that the site is up – but writing up my thoughts as written at the time.

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