Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Kathy Burke
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Although most famous for their endless witticism, Oscar Wilde’s plays also remind us that either for good or bad our past eventually catches up with all of us. Whether your origins have been obscured by being left in a London railway station, you’ve written indiscriminate letters selling cabinet secrets or walked out on your child, Wilde’s characters will eventually have to face who they really are.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is predominantly a play about the ridiculous categorisation of women as saints or sinners, and the social injustice that is the result of the burden of reputation. The upright Lady Windermere learns that her husband has been seen in the company of the scandalous Mrs. Erlynne who he then insists on inviting to his wife’s birthday ball. Horrified by the connection and the night’s embarrassment, Lady Windermere takes a drastic step and only the one women she despises can save her.
The second full-scale performance in Classic Spring Theatre Company’s Oscar Wilde Season, Kathy Burke has created a crisply romantic vision that offers its characters the possibility of contentment but without the self-deception that often accompanies “true-love”. With a refreshingly uncluttered set designed by Paul Wills that marries an eighteenth-century and art deco approach, it is the emotional life of the people on stage that is given precedence. And after the more traditional design for A Woman of No Importance, this cleaner approach offers hope of more radical offerings later in the season.
There is plenty to enjoy in Burke’s neatly abridged version, which runs at a little over two-hours with an interval, and maintains a fairly slick pace that dispenses with the overly digressive moments to focus primarily on the female characters who are vividly drawn in a production that celebrates their social power and intelligence. It’s clear that Burke has a real understanding of Wilde’s intentions and delivers a production with moments of great sensitivity.
They are moments, however, and the balance between comedy and deeper feeling is only partially successful. The more comedic focus of the first two acts, while entertaining, don’t quite created the level of emotional jeopardy that Wilde strives for in the concluding sections. One of the programme essays argues for the influence of Ibsen on Wilde’s writing but the audience is driven to laugh at even the most melodramatic moments, so the idea of stained reputations and social abandonment aren’t given as much serious dramatic impact as they need.
One key example is the relationship between Lady Windermere (Grace Molony) and her suitor Lord Darlington (Kevin Bishop) who tries to entice her from her husband. Yet Bishop makes Darlington a buffoon who no woman could ever take seriously, reiterated by the annoyance Molony displays in his company. So, it becomes impossible for the audience to believe that she could ever seriously considers him as someone to make a life with, undermining a crucial section of the story.
While the male characters are all pretty interchangeable, which so rarely happens, the three key female roles are really well defined and brilliantly performed. Samantha Spiro utilises the full spectrum of her range to deliver a Mrs Erlynne who transitions carefully from darkness to light and back again. From her first appearance at the ball, she controls the room, unabashed and entirely relishing her role as the social outcast. Effortlessly and entirely convincingly she discovers her maternal feelings, only to try to repress them, delivering the still shocking line “I want to be childless still” with a tone of self-delusion that only just convinces herself.
Grace Molony’s Lady Windermere is steely and independently-minded, unafraid to challenge her husband or risk derision when she believes herself to be in the right, which offers some hope of a more equal marriage as the play concludes, while Jennifer Saunders’ salty Duchess of Berwick takes quite the opposite approach to performance. She is over-the-top, loud and commanding, her performance stands out from the quieter approach of the rest but it’s hilarious and wonderfully timed. The audience adore her and, along with the musical interlude penned by Burke, it’s certainly the role everyone will remember.
Two shows into this Wilde season and Lady Windermere’s Fan offers plenty to enjoy in a fairly conventional but lovingly adapted production that puts the force of women centre stage. It argues pretty clearly that casting women as merely “good” or “bad” misses the point, that surfaces are an illusion. Besides as the Duchess of Berwick reminds us, it’s not girls who are the problem, “boys are so wicked”.
Runs until: 7 April 2018 | Image: Contributed