Since the time of Shakespeare and earlier, the theatre has a long tradition of men playing female parts.
The latest actor to do so is David Suchet, who will follow in the footsteps of Brian Bedford and Geoffrey Rush in bringing Lady Bracknell, the epitome of the late Victorian grande dame, to the Mayflower Theatre’s stage on Monday.
I’m not making her a pantomime dame with a falsetto voiceDavid Suchet
The Importance of Being Ernest, a classic farce by Oscar Wilde, is at the Southampton venue for a week before it opens in the West End this summer.
David says his Lady Bracknell will be authentic.
‘I’m not making her a pantomime dame with a falsetto voice,’ he promises in a very firm tone. ‘I’ll also be wearing a boned corset which means you have to sit on the edge of your seat with your back straight.’
He adds: ‘We’ve had female Hamlets, a female Richard II and both all-male and all-female productions of Shakespeares. Should every part be theoretically open to all actors, female and male? It’s hard to generalise. It depends on what the director wants to say.’
There have been many Lady Bracknells since the play was first performed in February 1895, such as Judi Dench, Penelope Keith and Maggie Smith. They have all been faced with a perennial problem: how to deliver that tiny, two-word phrase ’a handbag!’ and liberate it from the shadow cast over it by the late Dame Edith Evans, a celebrated Lady Bracknell.
‘Everybody asks you about that line and I intend to play it for real’ says David.
‘Ironically, Edith Evans is said to have regretted saying it in that way. It’s now akin to warning an actor about to play Hamlet that he should look out for the “to be or not to be” speech.’
How would David describe the play to the newcomers? ‘Wilde gave it the subtitle A Trivial Comedy For Serious People and as has often been said, playing comedy is a serious business. The Importance Of Being Earnest is a glorious English farce in which Wilde mercilessly satirises the upper classes.’
Tickets: £19.50 to £35, visit mayflower.org.uk