“A Handbag?” London's Latest Lady Bracknell

Oscar Wilde's most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest is set to make a welcome return to London's West End this week, when performances begin at the Vaudeville Theatre. Subtitled “a trivial comedy for serious people” the play holds historic and cultural significances, especially with regards to Oscar Wilde's life in London. As well as marking the pinnacle of his stage career after the play opened at the St James Theatre in 1895, it also marked the beginning of Wilde's demise, preceding his homosexual double life being revealed to the Victorian public. 

Whilst the play is no stranger to revivals, the word play, situations and unforgettable characters make this a comedy that audiences around the world will happily watch time and time again.

Celebrated star of stage and screen, David Suchet, takes on the famous role of Lady Bracknell in this new production, marking the first time the role has been performed by a man on the West End stage. The matriarchal menace is one of the most famous characters in comedy and has been reinterpreted many times throughout the past 100 years all over the world. Whilst the history of the role on stage and film has seen many of the 'greats' take it on, audiences are constantly searching for new interpretations, and Suchet is already set to be one of the most talked about performances of the year.

Ahead of the West End opening, we took a look at some of our favourite past performers in the same role:  

Dame Edith Evans – 1939 Gielgud Theatre

One of the most famous interpretations of the role came from Dame Edith Evans, one of the most famous British stage actresses of the 1900s. After creating roles in contemporary classics such as 'The Apple Cart' and 'The Millionairess', she became one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation, working at the Old Vic, RSC and National Theatre in a whole host of iconic roles. She first played the role of Lady Bracknell in 1939 in a production at the Gielgud Theatre, and returned to the role in London for the next seven years, although she did decline a run on Broadway.

Evans immortalised the role on film, starring in the 1952 version directed by Anthony Asquith alongside Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison. Her delivery of the infamous line “A Handbag?” became legendary, delivering it with equal measures of surprise, disgust and incredulity.  To many her performance is definitive and unforgettable, thanks again to her performance in the later BBC made for TV adaptation in which she reprised the role.

 

One of Britain’s most popular living actresses, Dame Judi Dench, has played the role on numerous occasions across a variety of mediums. She first took on the role in 1982 at the National Theatre in a new production directed by Peter Hall. She starred alongside Martin Jarvis, Nigel Havers, Zoë Wanamaker and Anna Massey in a production that helped reinvigorate interest in Wilde's work. Dench's dry persona and cutting matter-of-factness helped develop the role and break away from the shadow of Evans.

Dench returned to the role in 1995 for a Radio adaptation, and again in 2002 for a brand new film adaptation directed by Oliver Parker. She starred alongside Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Reece Witherspoon, reinventing the play for a brand new generation. Once again Dench proved to be a stunning Lady Bracknell, commanding the role on screen and redefining the iconic character. 

 

Joan Plowright – 1986 BBC TV Version

The BBC's made for TV version was a moderately successful attempt at reviving the play but offered little in the way of reinvention. Overly stuffy and at times quite awkward, the production lacked any sort of edge or accessibility. The overwhelming relief came from Joan Plowright's rigid and sharp portrayal of Lady Bracknell that delivered a sharper and less comic edge to the character.  

 

Dame Maggie Smith – 1993 Aldwych Theatre

A new West End production opened in 1993 at the Aldwych Theatre directed by Nicholas Hytner, starring Margaret Tyzack as Miss Prism, Richard E. Grant as Algernon, Alex Jennings as Jack and Claire Skinner as Cecily. Maggie Smith made her first West End stage appearance in five years in the role of Lady Bracknell, dividing the critics with her fresh interpretation, which some found to be too comic, whilst others praised the originality in her delivery. Whilst it was a traditional period dress production, designer Bob Crowley allowed the set to have an exaggerated perspective in order to highlight the constant lies and double meanings hidden within the text.

Brian Bedford – Broadway 2010

British actor and director Brian Bedford first starred as Lady Bracknell in 2009 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, making headlines as one of the first  high profile cross-dressing productions. The production, which was also directed by Bedford, transferred to Broadway in 2010 produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and saw the actor nominated for a Tony Award.

In a review for the New York Times, Charles Isherwood praised the casting, commenting that the move “proves beyond question that gender is of no importance whatsoever in portraying the imposing Lady Bracknell”. Critics generally agreed, and in what was seen as less of a vanity project and more of a nod to the Renaissance and classical traditions, the production became a hit: “Mr. Bedford is truly playing the role, not working a gimmick.”

 

Geoffrey Rush – Melbourne Theatre Company 2011

The next high profile cross-dressing production came from the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011 as Academy, Tony and Emmy award-winning Australian actor Geoffrey Rush took on the role of Lady Bracknell, having previously played Earnest in Simon Phillips' 1988 production. In a break with tradition, Rush became Lady Bracknell playing the role completely straight – with “no sense of travesty in his performance. No shrillness. No gimmickry. No exaggeration. He exudes authority via voice and face and glittering eyes...” (The Australian).

Rather than fall into a camp drag act, Rush managed to deliver a truthful performance based on the text, allowing the audience to forget it was a man playing the role. The stylish production was a sell-out, and once again helped redefine one of the most celebrated stage roles.

The Importance of Being Earnest begins previews at the Vaudeville Theatre on 24 June 2015, with an official opening on 1 July.