Here is this week’s trivia quiz. Is Dion Boucicault a) this year’s winner of France’s version of American Idol, b) a goal-scorer for the French World Cup team or c) a Victorian comic playwright?
Doctoral candidates in theatre history and actor/director Brian Bedford already know the answer to this question. Boucicault was in fact a stupendously successful popular dramatist who thrived in the middle years of the 19th century, one in a long line of Anglo-Irish writers like Wilde, Shaw and Beckett who delighted in their extravagantly luxurious skill with words and humour.
His first and greatest success was London Assurance. Written in 1841, at the start of the Victorian era, it served as an important link in theatrical history between the 18th-century comedies of manners and those that followed, specifically the great comedies of Oscar Wilde that shone so brightly at the close of the 19th century.
Certainly the connections between Boucicault and Wilde are too obvious to miss. Both these massively talented Irishman lived by their wits and used their talents to hold up farcical mirrors to the upper-class English world on which they depended for both subjects and audience.
However, there have to be other justifications for the Stratford Festival’s decision to stage this early Victorian comedy than merely its status as an important footnote on the way to Wilde — university English professors are a notoriously tiny and unforgiving bunch. So it is essential that the play itself should still be able to entertain and amuse a much wider audience.
It helps that Desmond Heeley has done his usual triumphant job as set and costume designer, but in another way this production starts with a major and distinct advantage.
Since William Hutt’s retirement last year, Brian Bedford is undisputedly Stratford’s senior leading man. Consequently he now enjoys making appearances in roles in which he has had previous success. He is currently starring as Malvolio and repeating a New York triumph as Sir Harcourt Courtly in London Assurance, which he also directs.
The part of Sir Harcourt could have been written with Bedford in mind. Playing this aging roué gives him endlessly hilarious opportunities to impersonate not only the self-deluded character himself but also generations of outrageously camp English actors who played this and similar characters.
Supporting Bedford are a number of fine comic performers. Stratford newcomer Adam O’Byrne, with director Bedford’s help, exhibits a sure grasp of the necessary farcical style in his role as Charles Courtly, Sir Harcourt’s son and rival; while Stratford veteran James Blendick gives wonderful support in the thankless straight role of country squire Max Harkaway.
However, the role of the tough proto-feminist Lady Gay Spanker, Boucicault’s second funniest creation, is far from thankless and Seana McKenna gives a delightful performance. Lady Gay is Sir Harcourt’s nemesis and, like the character she plays, McKenna gives Bedford a damn good run for the production’s acting honours.