Signs of Triviality

The other show we saw last week in Canada was The Importance of Being Earnest. This is a kind of “national treasure” production that one feels bad saying anything ill at all about. It is directed by and stars Brian Bedford, an actor of enormous talent and comprehensive experience, particularly with work of this sort. And it was designed by Desmond Heeley, a living legend in theatrical design, and a long-time favorite of Bedford’s to work with (they worked together three years ago on London Assurance, which is a kind of precursor to Earnest).

And this production, supremely competent in its execution, was also great fun, as Earnest nearly always is. The challenge with Earnest, though, is to freshen up one of the most familiar plays in the English language. The last time Stratford did the play, in 2000, they chose to produce the original four-act script, which is, truth to tell, not as strong as the cut-down three-act that was mounted in the original London production and is the canonical text, but which at least had the virtue of novelty. This production, for all its many virtues, never quite finds the way to rise to that challenge.

The key to doing Earnest well is to take the title – and hence the play – seriously. Wilde himself wavered between calling it a serious comedy for trivial people or a trivial comedy for serious people, but really its both. The stakes, for all concerned, really are quite high, and we must not forget that or it becomes a trivial comedy for trivial people, and unworthy of its author.

So: let’s start with the best. The set is to die for. More even than usual, you feel as though you are inside one if Heeley’s famous watercolor sketches. It is a rare talent who can create a set that is obviously a theatrical set and yet feels an utterly believable environment. It’s a trick akin to getting animation just right – avoiding the twin pitfalls of the uncanny and the unconvincing. From the paintings on the walls of Algy’s apartment to the stunning chandelier in the final act (made of plastic champagne flutes and plastic spoons, as I understand), Heeley’s artifice is absolutely perfect.

And Ben Carlson is perfectly cast as John Worthing, the moral and practical center of the drama. Carlson is a fiercely intelligent actor whose presence at Stratford is very welcome indeed. Last year, his Hamlet was revelatory, but he also turned in brilliant performances as Tranio in Shrew and as First Lord Dumaine in All’s Well. He is not the right man for every role (I was rather disappointed in his Macbeth earlier this year in Chicago, for instance), but John Worthing is a perfect role for him, and you can tell he knows it. From his awkward proposal to Gwendolyn to his sputtering rage at Algy’s muffin-scarfing to his final confrontation with Aunt Augusta, Carlson plays Worthing as always just on the edge of losing his composure – but never actually losing it, never actually crossing that fateful line. And his comic timing is flawless throughout; he makes these so-too-crafted, epigram-packed lines actually sound natural, like the thoughts of an actual person – which, of course, is the only way to make them funny.

Mike Shara is very nearly his equal as Algernon Montcrieff. Languidly self-involved, Shara avoids the fatal error of sliding into camp. Algy himself is a somewhat campy personality – but that is a rather different thing from delivering a campy performance of the character. Staying firmly on one side of that essential line, Shara charms us from the first, and we are never free of his charms thereafter. And Stephen Ouimette makes a tasty side dish as the Reverend Chasuble, anguished wooer of the tightly wound Prism.

It is perhaps unfair of me to say that the women do not quite measure up to the men in this production, but I’m afraid it’s the case. Least effective is Sarah Dodd as Miss Prism, who gives a rather surfacy performance and who is inadequately terrified of Lady Bracknell (though the fault there is rather shared). Andrea Runge is lovely as the fresh-faced Cecily Cardew, but not quite the complete narcissist that she needs to be. When she says of her diary, “it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication” – we don’t quite believe in her intentions, and we ought. Indeed, Algy would not fall so in love with her were they not entirely in earnest.

Sara Topham has been one of my favorite young actresses at Stratford for years, and I was looking forward enormously to her performance as Gwendolyn Fairfax. But I wonder if she oughtn’t to have been cast as Cecily (though she might have found the role too similar to that of Mabel, who she played in An Ideal Husband two years ago). Topham is a stunningly beautiful actress, with a smile that regularly unseams me from the nave to the chaps – and she has exquisite control in comic roles. Her particular strength is righteousness, which she put to great use last season as Laurencia in Fuente Ovejuna and the season before as Cordelia in Lear. But I have not seen her manifest the cold imperiousness that is the Bracknell legacy, and we need to see that for Gwendolyn to work. And we don’t, really. There is one line that says it all: “detestable girl, but I require tea!” Topham’s timing in delivering that line is perfect. But there is no acid in it. I don’t want to overstate things; Topham is a joy to watch in the role, spars wonderfully with Runge in the tea scene, and even more wonderfully with Carlson in the wooing scene (her best scene in the production, in my opinion). But I wanted her to be as good as Carlson was.

And, finally, Bedford himself as Lady Bracknell. On the one hand, Bedford is convincing as an older woman; this is not a “drag” performance, and thank-God for that. But was he convincing as Lady Bracknell? I’m not so sure. Bracknell is a cthonic figure, a primal terror; we take the measure of John Worthing as a man very much by the simple fact that he is willing to seek her as a mother-in-law – indeed, to face her down directly to wrest from her the requisite consent that he may marry Gwendolyn. But Bedford’s performance is quite restrained. This played fine in Act I; Lady Bracknell does not need to show her power from the first. But it is far more problematic in Act III. I mentioned before that Miss Prism is not nearly terrified enough of her. This is partly Sarah Dodd’s fault, but partly Bedford’s; his Bracknell simply does not seem to be trying to terrify her. It’s not that we don’t see her emotion – we do indeed see her shaken by the revelations of the final act. But Bracknell shouldn’t be visibly shaken. A couple of years ago, Bedford played Lear (in a production he also directed) and I recall feeling at the beginning a bit of apprehension about his delivery of the line “come not between the dragon and his wrath” – because there wasn’t much wrath in it. Overall, I came to appreciate Bedford’s Lear (and his Lear) very much, but that was a small false note. This was a similar, but I think more serious, misreading.

In general, the third act is the weakest of this production, in part because the comic timing, so sharp in most of the play, begins to dull ever so slightly, and I think the main fault here is Bedford’s as well. I am a bit worried that, precisely because of that trajectory, this review has a more negative tone than I intended. I recall heading to the first intermission in very high spirits indeed. So do go see it. This is a delightful evening of a theater, a first-rate production of a beloved classic, and one of the last chances to see a living legend paint a stage as only he can.

And as for Kelly Nestruck’s question – having in recent years seen her Volumnia, her Hecuba and her Mrs. Alving, I should like very much indeed to see Martha Henry’s Lear!