Although there’s nothing revolutionary about either the production concept or the conceit of a male actor playing the pivotal role of Lady Bracknell, the current version of Oscar Wilde’s comedy classic “The Importance of Being Earnest,” now on at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, moves comfortably into the winner’s circle through a combination of wit, talent and sheer class.
Director Brian Bedford is one of this continent’s past masters at how high comedy should be done, and his expertise with the likes of Coward and Moliere have easily paved the way for his triumph with Wilde. Bedford knows the key to such works lies in two things: devotion to what’s in the text and a true sense of what lies underneath it. He delivers both here, thanks to a cast that shares his vision perfectly.
This isn’t a Chekhovian “Earnest” or a brittle, frivolous one, but rather a production that seems filtered through what we know about what happened to Wilde just after he wrote it.
Yes, it’s consummately witty, but also dangerously so, with lines that mock everything Victorian England held dear. No wonder the establishment of the period was so anxious to leap on the bandwagon of Wilde’s destruction once his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas became public.
Designer Desmond Heeley sets the whole thing in shades of silver and gray, filled with swirling textures, almost as though it were an aging and slightly decadent greeting card. It’s a beautiful physical production but a slightly melancholy one as well, which is a sublime combination.
Equally inspired is the casting of the two leads. Ben Carlson gives us a Jack as foursquare and solid as any Victorian would want his son to be, while Mike Shara, while never tipping over into effeminacy, is deliciously equivocal in his sexuality — provoking, charming and flirting with virtually everyone on the stage, from his dour manservant Lane (a superb cameo from Robert Persichini) to his beloved Aunt Augusta.
She, of course, is better known as Lady Bracknell, and although she only appears in two of the play’s three acts, she sets its tone with her vinegar-dipped aphorisms and air of social superiority. Bedford is superb in the role, never once camping or sending it up, but being deeply funny simply because he takes himself so seriously. It’s not only a hilarious performance in itself but also an object lesson in how this sort of comedy ought to be played.
That extends to the whole cast as well, most notably Sara Topham’s elegantly lacquered valentine of a Gwendolen, charming and chilly all at once.
This superb production would be at home on any major stage in the world, and one can’t help but think that with Bedford’s reputation, it would also be able to earn a profitable place for itself on Broadway.