Men and handbags

An all-male 'Importance of Being Earnest' seems a natural progression for this masterpiece of artifice, says Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture

In Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, there's a lovely bit of Wildean pastiche. Assuming the dragon-dowager accents of Lady Bracknell, one of the teachers (played originally by Bennett, at that point in drag) declares: "All women dress like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man ever does. That is his." This could stand as the mischievous epigraph to a bold new production of the piece at the Bristol Old Vic, where Wilde's "Trivial Comedy for Serious People" is performed by an all-male company. It is directed and designed by David Fielding and casts as Lady Bracknell Michael Fitzgerald, who gave a magnificent portrayal of Wilde, as a baroque but brave ruin in his French exile, in the premiere of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love.

In Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, there's a lovely bit of Wildean pastiche. Assuming the dragon-dowager accents of Lady Bracknell, one of the teachers (played originally by Bennett, at that point in drag) declares: "All women dress like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man ever does. That is his." This could stand as the mischievous epigraph to a bold new production of the piece at the Bristol Old Vic, where Wilde's "Trivial Comedy for Serious People" is performed by an all-male company. It is directed and designed by David Fielding and casts as Lady Bracknell Michael Fitzgerald, who gave a magnificent portrayal of Wilde, as a baroque but brave ruin in his French exile, in the premiere of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love.

Peter Hall's Diaries make clear that, at the National Theatre in the mid-1970s, the idea of mounting an all-male Earnest brought the man who proposed it, Jonathan Miller, into sharp disagreement with another board member, Harold Pinter. "Pinter's position is clear: an author has certain clear intentions, and Wilde's intentions were not that the women should be played by men," reports Hall. But it seems to me that the author of The Portrait of Mr W H - which floats the possibility that Shakespeare's sonnets were dedicated to one of the boy actors who played female roles on the stage - would raise no objection to a cross-dressing version of his play and would, indeed, graciously see the point.

The poet W H Auden is recorded as saying that The Importance of Being Earnest is "an extraordinarily good play. It's about nothing at all, which is what makes it so good... The trouble with [George Bernard] Shaw's plays is that they are all brain and no body, which isn't good for the stage. There may not be any body in Earnest, but at least there are clothes." That last sentence is wonderfully witty and acute.

The characters (Algy, Jack, Bracknell, Gwendolen, Cecily et al) who populate Wilde's masterpiece seem to be less biological beings than exquisite devices for demonstrating, with all the liberating force of hilarity, the supreme arbitrariness of the codes and conventions that give people their social identity and status. In its serenely subversive manner, this comedy plays with the incendiary notion that the supposedly natural pecking order is as much an artificial construct as a piece of theatre and that, far from being a reflection of necessity, "the status quo" could be filed under "Fiction" next to Miss Prism's abandoned three-decker novel. Adding an extra layer of artifice, a single-sex production is arguably better placed to bring this out more pointedly.

Auden's contention that The Importance of Being Earnest is "about nothing" is, however, much more debatable, as I heard when, during a recent lunch break from rehearsal, I talked to Fielding and Fitzgerald. The latter - with his thickset build; flickeringly intense blue eyes; slightly Brian Sewell-esque delivery; and a demeanour that suggests a power, if he was crossed, to turn his culprit into a pillar of salt - certainly possesses the equipment to be a formidable Bracknell.

Fielding points to "the subtext in the play of what was going on in Wilde's life when he was writing it just before his trial", saying it is this that his production will attempt to present and explore. Earnest was one of the two Wilde plays that were running in London when his libel action against his male lover's father, the Marquis of Queensberry, backfired, putting Wilde himself in the dock. The run of the play was terminated. "It's a very complicated process to work out how much he had foreseen of his future," says Fielding, while noting "the fascinating parallels and premonitions" in the piece.

Wilde's name cannot often have appeared in the same sentence as that of the disgraced person formerly known as Lord Archer. But in his use of the West End theatre, the latter offers us a highly intriguing reversed image of the great author. In 2000 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket (the venue most associated with Wilde's plays), Archer appeared as the title character - a doctor charged with poisoning his wife for insurance money - in his own courtroom drama, The Accused. Given that Archer was himself awaiting trial for perjury, his pose as a wrongly indicted man in a piece of fiction looked like a brazen attempt to influence his own real-life fate.

This is, to a striking degree, an inverted version of Wilde's procedures. His plays often sailed very close to the wind, dangling insouciantly before the public - in coded, comic (or melodramatic) form - the issues that would boomerang back to him in the court room. With Earnest, he cheekily raises and defuses matters close to home. The plot is propelled by guilty secrets, double lives (the male practice of "Bunburying" being as good as a nod and a wink to the initiated) and the looming threat of exposure. But the uncovering of Jack's secret proves to be benign, establishing his right to belong in high society. With Wilde it was the opposite, reducing him to the condition of pariah.

"Ultimately the upper classes win by virtue of the fact that everyone turns out to be of the right class," says Fitzgerald. But within that reassuring framework, he released the imp of mischief. "Whenever you do a play you have to try to work out why you think the author wrote it," he continues. "My theory is that he was in sympathy with sentiments of the worthy new plays of social awareness being written by people like Tom [Caste] Robertson. But he thought that he could move people faster by making them laugh with a piece that turned convention on its head. He didn't need to hit them over the head with a lesson. He wrote a play that had them laughing about somebody whose background was a handbag."

We agree that Lady Bracknell has strong affinities with the Red Queen ("Off with their heads!") in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The world of Earnest is rather like a bewildering wonderland that you don't need to drop off and fall down a rabbit hole to reach. People lay down the law and speak with the cadences of absolute morality, but it's mostly a form of verbal music from which the actual morality has been sneakily spirited away, leaving high-spirited nonsense. On hearing that Jack's house is on the unfashionable side of Belgrave Square, Lady Bracknell imperiously proclaims that "that could be easily altered". Jack asks if she means the fashion or the side. "Both, if necessary" is her startling reply, an index of the sublime ease with which Wilde's characters can stage an insurrection against sense, lopping language from the laws of logic.

"I think that some of our leading actresses [he must mean, while graciously not specifying, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith who have both appeared in the role] are too intelligent to play Bracknell, who must not be too intelligent. Everything that Lady Bracknell says is - as with Dame Edna - 'received' from class and place and time. I also think that a lot of actresses will not allow themselves to be hideous. A man will, so perhaps can be a little more frightening."

Jonathan Hyde and Hinge and Brackett have previously stepped into Bracknell's shoes. The role was once played by the male performer Bette Bourne (who gave a nice twist to the immortal line "A handbag?" by enunciating it in the tones of someone addressing a tiresome lunatic) and later this year Ridiculusmus are due to present Earnest as a two-man show.

But mounting a full-scale all-male production, Fielding reveals, leads to an ironic situation. The play is so brilliantly artificial that "you could have to keep reminding yourself that the women are being played by men". Fielding is intent on emphasising the hermaphroditic nature of Wilde's characters. So stand by for alienation effects and actors who have been cast for their girly-boy qualities.

Michael Fitzgerald offers a piquant recollection. "I remember being at a wig-fitting for [Alan Bennett's] The Madness of George III and I looked round and thought, it's strange, but every man in this company could play Lady Bracknell." So there's no shortage of casting material if this production starts a trend for single-sex versions of Wilde's masterpiece.

'The Importance of Being Earnest', Old Vic, Bristol (0117-987 7877) tomorrow to 28 May

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