The advertising campaign flooded radio-waves with trumpeting worthy of an A-list movie star. “Stockard Channing, the star of Grease and (copy-writer thinks hard, skips 30 years) The West Wing, Oscar-nominated for (copy-writer checks IMDb quickly, hoping she was indeed nominated once) Six Degrees of Separation, is starring as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gaiety, for a limited run only”. The more subdued poster campaign promised Earnest ‘With Stockard Channing’, though she was still the only actor on the poster…
The truth is that Lady Bracknell just isn’t that big a role. Is she structurally important for the tightly-wound farce? Absolutely. Does she have a plethora of disgustingly good lines? Undoubtedly. Is she on-stage for more than three scenes? Nope. Basing your advertising around the actress playing Lady Bracknell is like playing up who’s doing Caesar in Julius Caesar… You can be damn sure that Anthony Asquith when directing the definitive 1952 screen Earnest secured Michael Redgrave for the lead role before he went looking for Dame Edith Evans to do an ‘And Dame Edith Evans’ exercise in scenery-chewing as Lady Bracknell. It’s a part that grand dames of theatre from Margaret Rutherford to Judi Dench could do in their sleep, but wake up for because it’s so much fun. But it’s a fun supporting role.
Marketing the play around Channing, inevitable because of the coup of securing star-power standard in the West End, is an adoption by theatre of the bait and switch marketing trick so sadly prevalent in cinema. But theatregoers tend to be better informed, if for no other reason than the price differential and the smaller capacity venues mean more thought and planning goes into attending a play than the aimless drifting into a multiplex screen when your preferred option is sold out that is so much cinema-going. Channing will sell more tickets for Rough Magic, who wouldn’t have stepped up to a venue the size of the Gaiety otherwise, but most people attending will know she’s not going to be the leading attraction, and those who don’t may well experience the sort of annoyance at being misled that destroyed Sweeney Todd when, after a spectacularly deceitful trailer, Americans audiences discovered to their horror that it was actually a musical.
Personally I’m bemused by the hype, as even within the cast of The West Wing, while I would run to the theatre to see Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford or Allison Janney, I would never have been that pushed about Channing. I’m also annoyed that the hype surrounding Channing distracts from the home-grown talent on show. I am perhaps biased (he was my committee liaison when I directed my first show in UCD’s Dramsoc in 2001) but it irks me that Rory Nolan, who was superb as Jack Absolute in Brinsley Sheridan’s equally ridiculous classic The Rivals in the Abbey last summer and will undoubtedly Fassbender across the Gaiety stage with Algernon’s splendid paeans to Bunburying, will receive little attention because of the media circus surrounding Channing. Yes, it is nice to see Hollywood movie-stars doing theatre here occasionally but it’s nicer to see Irish theatre actors doing theatre here every week.