Every once in a while there comes a cherry on life’s cup cake. My present job for example.
I’m covering the two butlers in The Importance of Being Earnest in New York, or to put it alliteratively; bystanding for a brace of butlers on Broadway.
It’s an unusual production and my workload in it is unusually (and most agreeably) light.
The celebrated Brian Bedford (Tony winner, five time Drama Desk winner) is playing Lady Bracknell. One assumes that Oscar Wilde was not consciously writing this role for drag, but it has become vogue for male actors to play it. Something about her stentorian dominance, given definitively by Dame Edith Evans in the 1952 film of the play, attracts a man’s idea of what such women are. Indeed, the role has been essayed by Dames Maggie and Judi, who stand alone at the very peak of English speaking theatre, but neither of whom found an answer to Dame Edith’s reading of ‘In a handbag.’ Noted north American productions where men have played Lady Bracknell include: Edward Hibbert (Longwharf), Bill Hutt (Stratford, Ontario), and Ellis Rabb (Lyceum, Broadway). The production I am currently involved with also originated in Stratford, Ontario, where Brian Bedford has been a featured leading man for many years.
Brian is splendid, as is all the cast, more on that later – but the star of this production is Desmond Heeley for his transcendent sets and costumes. Broadway stages command the best design skills in the country and the biggest budgets. But step back a minute and consider the Broadway environment. It is driven (as is all theatrical production) by money, but on Broadway by much more money than in any other theatrical context in the world. The pressures on all involved are enormous, because a show which fails is just horribly expensive; that, and it should be noted, the baroque taste of the most influential New York theatre critics; and the fact that there is such absurd over-supply of actors, has evolved the Broadway style of performance, that hundred-and-ten-percent look-at-me commitment. An energy that flashes and dazzles, and perhaps satisfies or confounds the paying customer into believing that they actually got something of value for the astonishing price of their tickets. Likewise with design. Adjectives that usually apply are: flashy, stylish, unrelenting.
But this is different: The Importance requires two interiors and a garden. And Desmond Heeley’s design begins with a masterpiece of a front cloth which covers the whole proscenium arch. It is a stunning visual before the show begins. It is a painting of Britannia with the sun rising behind her and the letters V. R. (Victoria Regina) rising above, the rays of sunlight catching the lettering and making it shine like gold leaf. Above the front cloth there is a deep red (the usual colour of theatrical curtains) teaser (also crafted by Desmond Heeley) which supplies a fringe of tassels, curled in secret swirls, referencing the velvet plush of Victorian upholstery.
In Act One we’re in Algernon’s Apartment, the palette is based on a series of silver grays, the same tones echoed in the furniture and the dressing, but variations played with a master’s touch. Three paintings grace the walls, but where a lessor artist would have settled for a painting of the time, Desmond has painted his own. His figures are softique, even the frames at their edges seem to flirt with another dimension that looking at directly you can’t quite define, but when you see peripherally, hint of places where there is more style and meaning than we commonly know.
For the garden scene in act two, he gives us a profusion of roses, but an abundance, not a surplus. The quantities and the colour just so. In Act three we are in a morning room with a glass paneled conservatory upstage, and grounds beyond – but here’s the magic – the glass is painted on a scrim – he doesn’t bother with real glass and all its stage issues of reflection and glare, the result is one of heightened realism.
But the signal feature of each of the three settings is this: on first sight they are stunning – they draw applause as the front cloth rises – but as the playing of the scenes proceeds, the set fades from the spotlight. It’s the same with the costumes. They are bold for sure – Gwendolyn’s act one gown shimmering between light silver and white cream, and her curled jet black hat is a late-Victorian precursor to something by Aubrey Beardsley with his seductive lines or even Jean Cocteau with his gossamer ones.
The summary is this: the design supports the play, the story and the actors, rather than, as can be the case, competing with them. It’s an example of design virtuosity from a master of his craft, whose focus is first on the work, not on himself.
A similar purity of discipline is displayed in the acting. Under Brian’s precise (unusually precise) direction, the comedy moves forward with energy and intent. It is a truism of comic wisdom that one well placed big laugh is better than four or five small ones. The Importance is a challenge of good taste in this way because it’s possible to get a laugh on every line. Brian’s own performance is deliciously understated. Wisely he does not confront Dame Edith’s rendition, but makes memorable emphasis in other parts of the text – I won’t say which, in case you happen to see it – we play till March. He is, like his designer, a master of technique, so Lady Bracknell’s feminine treble flutes and pitches with the best stage dames, but he has certain characteristics as an actor which are beyond price on a stage. Chief among them is his depth of belief in the world which the character inhabits. It is this, much beyond his considerable vocal skills, or adeptness at navigating classical text, that gives him a direct line to the audience.
And where do I come in?
There are certain keys to understudy engagements: if you’re smart, you don’t cover a star. And you don’t cover Hamlet – although Jeremy Northam broke both these rules when he covered Daniel Day Lewis at The National in London, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt his career.
In this job I am required to be well acquainted with thirty four witty lines of dialogue in eight small but crucial entrances.
So I come in to the theatre at a half hour before curtain, I climb the five flights to my well appointed dressing room, and for three agreeable hours I do my own work under the aegis of an immensely stylish production.
I’ll call that a cherry.