When it was revealed that Karen Dunbar would play Lady Bracknell in the new production of The Value of Being Earnest at the Perth Theatre, it was clear that something special was in mind for director Lu Kemp. It remains to be seen how that works out for Oscar Wilde’s zippy 19th-century manners satire, which has become a staple of commercial touring theatre. As for Lady Bracknell, Dunbar seems to make the most of this grandest of ladies’ glassy-eyed stubbornness, whose eminent respectability conceals a history as well concealed as the handbag that gives her the most immortal line of the story, and she seems to play it for genteel old ladies above the regular fare.
She is very Glaswegian,”She’s very Glaswegian,” “Very fancy Glaswegian, but she’s getting there. I learned quite a bit from the script before we started rehearsals for the play, but I never settled on a voice. It’s interesting because it’s not quite what I expected, and instead of choosing a voice, I’m seeing what comes out of it.”
“In her dialogue, Dunbar points out, “There are enough hints to let me know about her past,” citing a passage from the third act of the play when Lady Bracknell reveals to her nephew Algernon that she had no fortune when she met Lord Bracknell: “But I never dreamed it would stand in my way.
“That’s enough for me to show that she comes from a lower class,” says Dunbar, “so I want her to come from Govan.”
Dunbar collaborated with voice coach Ros Steen, paying careful attention to the line’s rhythm.
Someone said the lyrics were really muscular,” Dunbar says, “and somebody else said it looked like a verbal opera, but it would have used different words if it had been written for Scots, and that is one of the things that makes this process so interesting. It’s an English play written by an Irishman and performed by Scots here, if you think about it.
Dunbar has not discouraged this more local approach to the play from looking at her many ancestors who have taken on the mantle of Lady Bracknell.
It’s an iconic role, and I knew it, of course, but I’m not going to say I’ve never been on Netflix, but I just enjoy seeing how other people handle things in rehearsal for something like this. I’ve watched Judi Dench do it, and there’s Edith Evans, of course, and Joan Plowright, who was in the 1980s in this free adaptation of the play, is the one I find very fascinating. They’re all different, and mine, because I’m me and I’m Scottish, will be different again. But it’s Oscar Wilde here. With that, you can’t go wrong.
In her early television roles in Chewin ‘the Fat and her own BBC sketch series, The Karen Dunbar Show, Dunbar’s roots in comedy lie before finally moving to the land of panto. However, she has widened her range of acting in outstanding fashion over the last decade, making a solo debut in Hugh MacDiarmid’s bold new adaptation of Denise Mina, A Drunk Woman Looks at the Thistle, and being up to her neck in sand as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Tron.
Dunbar also appeared in the all-female production of Henry IV by Phyllida Lloyd, and played Trinculo in the production of The Tempest by Lloyd. Both were moved after their London performances to New York. So while Dunbar remains a panto superstar, even her widest work has a not-so-hidden breadth running through it. In essence, all of which makes her perfect for The Value of Earnest Being.
“There’s a lot in Lady Bracknell. We think of her as this snooty old lady who’s a representative of the upper class, but there’s more to her than that. I think she’s less a symbol of Victorian values than of Victorian hypocrisy. That’s what the play explores.”
Being Earnest’s Value was the last and potentially greatest of the great comic plays of Wilde before he was eventually sent to jail following a series of trials leading to his being found guilty of gross indecency. On Valentine’s Day 1895, the very first performance of the play premiered at St. James’s Theatre in London, and the very first Lady Bracknell was played by the Liverpool-born actress Rose Leclercq. While Leclercq was praised for emphasizing the inherent cynicism of the character, some criticized the play itself for its absence of a social message. In retrospect, maybe, Wilde was