Neil Cooper

When it was announced that Karen Dunbar would be playing Lady Bracknell in Perth Theatre’s new production of The Importance of Being Earnest, it was clear that director Lu Kemp had something special in mind. How that turns out for Oscar Wilde’s fruity 19th century comedy of manners, which has become a staple of the commercial touring theatre circuit, remains to be seen. As for Lady Bracknell, while Dunbar looks set to make the most of the cut-glass bullishness of this grandest of dames, whose eminent respectability masks a past kept as tucked away as the handbag that gives her the play’s most immortal line, she looks to be taking her somewhere beyond standard posh old lady fare.

“She’s very Glaswegian,” says Ayr-born Dunbar of her take on Wilde’s ultimate society gate-crasher. “Very posh Glaswegian, but she’s coming on. I learnt quite a lot of the script before we started rehearsing the play, but I never settled on a voice. That’s interesting, because it’s not quite what I anticipated, and rather than choosing a voice, I’m seeing what comes out.”

As Dunbar points out, “There are enough hints in her dialogue to let me know about her background,” and quotes a passage from the play’s third act, when Lady Bracknell reveals to her nephew Algernon how when she met Lord Bracknell she had no fortune of any kind, ‘But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.’

“That’s enough for me to show she comes from a lower-class background,” says Dunbar, “so let’s have her from Govan.”

Dunbar has been working with voice coach Ros Steen, with a particular emphasis on the rhythms of each line.

“Someone said that the writing is very muscular,” says Dunbar, “and someone else commented that it was akin to a verbal opera, but if it had been written for Scots it would have used different words, and that’s one of the things that makes this such a fascinating process. When you think about it, it’s an English play, written by and Irishman and played here by Scots.”

This more localised approach to the play hasn’t stopped Dunbar from looking to her many forebears who have taken on Lady Bracknell’s mantle.

“It’s an iconic part, and of course I knew of it, but I’m not going to pretend I’ve never been off Netflix, but with something like this, when I’m rehearsing, I really enjoy seeing other people’s take on things. I’ve been watching Judi Dench do it, and of course there’s the Edith Evans one, and the one I’m finding really interesting is Joan Plowright, who was in this free adaptation of the play in the 1980s. These are all different, and mine will be different again, because I’m me and I’m Scottish. But this is Oscar Wilde. You cannae go wrong.

Dunbar’s roots in comedy come by way of her early turns on TV in Chewin’ the Fat as well as having her own BBC sketch series, The Karen Dunbar Show before eventually moving into panto-land. Over the last decade, however, she has expanded her acting range in exemplary fashion, flying solo in Denise Mina’s audacious reworking of Hugh MacDiarmid, A Drunk Woman Looks at the Thistle, and buried up to her neck in sand as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Tron.

Dunbar also appeared in Phyllida Lloyd’s all female production of Henry IV, as well as playing Trinculo in Lloyd’s production of The Tempest. Both transferred to New York following their London runs. So while Dunbar remains a panto superstar, a not so hidden depth run throughout even her broadest work. All of which, again, makes her ideal for The Importance of Being Earnest.

“There’s a lot going on with Lady Bracknell. We think of her as this hoity toity old lady who’s this representative of the upper classes, but there’s more than that. I don’t think she’s so much a symbol of Victorian values as a symbol of Victorian hypocrisy. That’s what the play’s exploring.”

The Importance of Being Earnest was the last and arguably greatest of Wilde’s great comic plays prior to his eventual imprisonment following a series of trials that led to him being found guilty of gross indecency. The play’s very first production premiered at the St James’s Theatre in London on Valentine’s Day 1895, and featured Liverpool born actress Rose Leclercq as the very first Lady Bracknell. While Leclercq was praised for bringing out the character’s inherent cynicism, the play itself was criticised by some for what was viewed as a lack of any social message. In retrospect, perhaps Wilde was being too subtle.

Like all of Wilde’s dramatic works, The Importance of Being Earnest has an eminently respectable front and epigrams aplenty to keep those who enjoy their wit coated with cleverness eternally amused. Beyond its eloquent immediacy, however, there is an understated sense of rebelliousness that courses through the play. These aren’t the main things, however, that have ensured its classic status.

As Dunbar points out, “It’s quite a simple thing. It’s funny. Something that was really funny a hundred years ago will be funny now. Humour has and will stand the test of time. Really good humour is timeless. There’s a lot of stuff in there about class as well, but at its heart, for all there’s everything else going on, it’s a love story, and Lady Bracknell is in the thick of all that.

“I think, at her heart, Lady Bracknell celebrates love, and as much as she has her rules and reservations about everything that’s going on, she really wants love to triumph. She may look like she’s the main block to these three love stories that are going on in the play, and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying she’s cupid, she’s a champion of love, and wants everyone to be happy.”

The Importance of Being Earnest, Perth Theatre, March 5-21.