Nottingham was honoured to host the debut performance of a much anticipated rendition of The Importance of Being Earnest last night (May 13).
The national first night of Oscar Wilde’s seminal comedy at the Theatre Royal was both warmly familiar and excitingly original, and the comedy of names, of classes, and of Victorian solidarity, is still as much a satire of upper class lunacy as it ever was.
Suchet played the role Lady Bracknell brilliantly - possibly even making the matriarch one of those parts that serious actors should aspire to play. You know how it goes - you make your name as Hamlet. You retire as Lear. But somewhere in the midst of all that you have a little fun with Bracknell.
And the star of Poirot carried the part with a real grace - real, insofar as it is totally performed, but that is kind of the point. He deliberately neglected to emulate Dame Judy Dench’s famous style from the film with Rupert Everett
For one thing, there is no exploitation of that immortal line: “A haaaaaandbag!”. Suchet played it down, almost into insignificance - seemingly shy of speaking it at all. He refused to be a gimmick - and thank God he did.
Instead Lady Bracknell is a very palpable, human influence over the loved-up bright young things. Dench may have had some kind of motherly omnipotence, but Suchet’s power was carried on the air - it was Machiavellian, but it was laughable, and primed for an uprising.
But the greatest joy to watch were the young lovers, particularly Philip Cumbus as Algernon and Imogen Doel as Cecily. The roles were once concrete-set by Rupert Everett’s obnoxious misogyny and Reese Witherspoon’s dense simplicity. Now they are endearing, wonderful - totally forgivable of the plentiful flaws. Cumbus lofts around the stage with an ice cold strut, and Doel delivers Wilde’s words as a husky kitten with an evil streak.
In a play undeniably about identity, and the reshaping thereof - these classic characters have been transformed superbly.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday, May 16, and will reside in the West End from June.