The 2011 Broadway revival of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest was so great, that it was filmed in front of a live audience and shown in cinemas back then. Unavailable since, it is now streaming via TheaterMania with bonus features for $15. Of course, there’s Wilde’s artistry with his ingenious epigrams, the barbed skewering of the British class system and that precise plot. Most importantly, this glorious document preserves Brian Bedford’s magnificence.
“I had just played King Lear, what else could I have played after that?” joked Mr. Bedford to David Hyde Pierce during a pre-performance interview, when asked about his motivation for taking on the female role of Lady Bracknell. “I didn’t want to get into a frock and camp around” explained Bedford of his serious approach to his characterization, citing the renowned English actress Margaret Leighton and the American society fixture Brooke Astor as inspirations.
Swathed in costume designer Desmond Heely’s Tony Award-winning hilariously opulent Victorian creations along with designer Paul Huntley’s wig, Bedford is visually stunning. Then there is his side-splitting performance. His assured comic timing is laced with periodic pauses followed by fluty pronouncements, often bringing down the house. If Edith Evans was the greatest Lady Bracknell of the 20th century by repeating her stage turn in the 1952 film adaptation, then it is likely that Brian Bedford will be the greatest Lady Bracknell of the 21st century for this incarnation. They’re tied in effectiveness for delivering that hallowed line, “A handbag?”
Santino Fontana as Algernon Moncrieff, David Furr as John Worthing, Sara Topham as Gwendolen Fairfax, Charlotte Parry as Cecily Cardew, Dana Ivey as Miss Prism, Paxton Whitehead as Rev. Canon Chasuble, Paul O’Brien as Lane, and Tim MacDonald as Merriman are all delightful, energetic and abundantly charming.
Bedford also superbly directed this production which originated in 2009 at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. There’s a galloping pace, breezy performances, inspired stage business and clever sight gags, one involving a chandelier. Miss Prism’s pivotal handbag never looked so monumental. Bedford’s directorial brilliance is dazzlingly replicated for the screen by director David Stern with an artful mélange of closeups, medium shots and long shots. The accomplished technical team showcases Mr. Heely’s lavishly stylized 19th century scenic designs.
Besides the witty interview with Mr. Pierce, supplemental features include an Oscar Wilde quiz, Alfred Molina’s insightful interview with Wilde scholar Michael Hackett and thrilling sped-up footage of Bedford putting on his makeup and being costumed and bewigged. The film was produced in collaboration with L.A. Theatre Works.
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, this The Importance of Being Earnest played at their American Airlines Theatre for six months, the longest known running Broadway production that the play has had. In addition to the Tony Award-winning costumes, there were Tony nominations for Best Revival of a Play and Bedford for Best Performance by An Actor In A Leading Role In A Play. He also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor In A Play and Heely’s costume design won as well.
Nominated for seven Best Actor Tony Awards and winning once for The School for Wives, the English Brian Bedford had a remarkable stage career in London, New York, around the U.S. and in Canada. Alas, his screen appearences were scant, but now there is this smashing cinematic version of his final theatrical triumph. He died at the age of 80 in 2016.
The Importance of Being Earnest (streaming through June 30, 2021)
Roundabout Theatre Company and L.A. Theatre Works
For tickets, visit http://www.theatermania.stream
Running time: three hours including one intermission and extra features