The Importance of Being Earnest at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The evening we were in Stratford, Ontario to see The Importance of Being Earnest, the audience laughed so much that the actors must have wondered, on the few times when a line did not get audible chuckles, if perhaps they’d blown their lines. This is a fine production of what we think is the funniest play ever written.

Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell2

No such thing as excess: Brian Bedford in Lady Bracknell's third-act costume

Brian Bedford directs this show and also plays Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell. This is not the leading role, but you wouldn’t know it from the round of applause Bedford got for his first-act entrance, when he flounced into the London flat of Algernon Moncrieff (Mike Shara). Bedford got another round when he returned in the third act in another over-the-top costume.  In drag or out, Bedford still has the most enthusiastic following of any actor at either Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake. And of course no one can deliver Oscar Wilde’s immortal lines better than he.

Yet it must be said that Bedford’s voice in this show was not nearly as strong as that of the other actors. That wasn’t apparent when we last saw him as King Lear a couple of years ago. He’s not a young man. Perhaps his physical infirmities — one hears of back problems — are finally affecting his performances.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Shara and Carlson

Bedford was given an especially strong cast, beginning with Mike Shara as Algernon and Ben Carlson as Jack Worthing. (We can’t help noting with some alarm the regularity with which the Shaw Festival’s best actors desert to Stratford; we last saw Mike Shara hamming it up in Shaw’s Arms and the Man a couple of years ago.) We especially enjoyed Robert Persichini in his brief appearance as Algernon’s manservant Lane and Stephen Ouimette as Rev. Canon Chasuble.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Ben Carlson remedies his failure to propose to Sara Topham

The only problematical performance, as we saw it, was by Sara Topham as Gwendolen Fairfax. We remember with appreciation Ms. Topham’s Laura several years ago in The Glass Menagerie. As Gwendolen, however, she affected a high-pitched, sing-song voice that eventually grated rather than entertained. Properly understood, Gwendolen is a strong character (she is, after all, Lady Bracknell’s daughter), not an airhead.

The candy-house sets — three elaborate, completely different sets for each of the three acts — certainly caught our eye. The second act’s country house scene 100_7850reminded us of an impressionist painting by Childe Hassam that we saw earlier this spring. The wife of our bosom didn’t like the sets, but we did.

According to the Stratford Festival’s website, The Importance of Being Earnest is a “critique of love, sex and social hypocrisy that remains stingingly pertinent even today.” This is rank nonsense; why do they say such things? This play isn’t relevant; it’s frivolous; that’s its appeal, and that’s why we wanted to see it again.

Naturally, we hoped to find things in the play we’d never noticed before, and we did.  Like Gwendolen’s line: “Once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?  And I don’t like that.  It makes men so very attractive.”  How, in 1895, did Oscar Wilde get away with a line like that?  By putting it in the mouth of a female character, we suppose.

Nothing about this production changed our view that Oscar Wilde, and The Importance of Being Earnest in particular, must have made an early and lasting impression on P. G. Wodehouse, as discussed in this Emsworth post.   The plots of Wodehouse’s stories and his stock characters clearly owe a lot to this Wilde play.  Wodehouse even used the name “Bunbury” in one of his novels.  See the post!

However, we have an objection to register. No doubt to save money, this year the Stratford Festival is printing its programs on cheap paper stock, and the new programs are nearly twice as large as they used to be.

Doesn’t the management know that Stratford patrons save their programs from year to year? Our collection of Stratford and Shaw programs goes back years. These larger, mismatched programs don’t fit in the pile. Not only that, the programs were apparently prepared before any of the play’s costumes were ready, so the programs have no pictures of the cast in character. As visual records of the play for patrons, what good are they?

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

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