John Russell Taylor in the West End
23 January 2018
Oh dear! Alas, what a fall is here. The opening production in Classic Spring Theatre Company’s Oscar Wilde season, Dominic Dromgoole’s reading of A Woman of No Importance, was, l thought, pretty successful on all counts. Evenly paced, elegantly spoken, neatly papering over the cracks between the cascade of famous epigrams and the shamelessly melodramatic meat of the drama. Kathy Burke’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, on the other hand, does not avoid the danger of seeming broken-backed while trying to reconcile Wilde’s two modes and at the same time keeping in touch with modern tastes.
The ensemble. Photo credit Marc Bremmer.
It seems to me that this production of Lady Windermere’s Fan fails on virtually all counts. Possibly the crucial miscalculation was to let (encourage?) the actors to do anything with their dialogue but speak it in the elegant literary tones that it evidently requires. It’s rather like those Shakespeare productions that do their utmost to disguise the fact that Shakespeare wrote in verse, as though any such suspicion would put off contemporary audiences immediately, savouring as it does of elitism and carrying all the wrong class connotations.
Of course, Lady Windermere’s Fan is all about class, and who belongs in Society and who does not. When the mysterious Mrs Erlynne turns up in London, apparently out of nowhere, and immediately befriends or, more signiﬁcantly, is befriended by a number of gentlemen prominent in Society, le tout-Londres is agog to know where she comes from and what is going on.
Among those most affected is the innocent, young, incredibly pure Lady Windermere, since all her more or less malicious Society friends are eager to warn her about her husband’s deeply suspicious relationship with this shady lady. We find out that Mrs Erlynne is her long-estranged mother, believed by her to be dead, and that Windermere is doing his best to keep her from knowing, or it would break her heart.
Wilde was writing about highly literate lords and ladies, and who these days wants to know about them? Or so the current arguments go. But at least every play production needs some stylistic consistency. We don’t get it here. Style with a capital “S” is what we need and what we most painfully lack. Those that have least to do with the comic elements, particularly Grace Molony and Joshua James who play respectively Lady and Lord Windermere, come off best — partly because they never have to switch genres. Even Samantha Spiro as the dangerous Mrs Erlynne seems much happier in the straighter sections of the play than when she has to be cheeky as part of her seduction technique.
Of the other gentlemen of the cast I will not speak. They know who they are. But l will say that what they did, particularly in Act Three, set in Lord Darlington’s apartment, often comes near to a very so-so school production.
l was surprised at Jennifer Saunders as the formidable gossipy Duchess of Berwick. She ought to know how to play a grande dame, but instead she shamelessly hams it up and throws in an occasional reminiscence of Edith Evans, with an almost palpable wink at the audience. Actually she seems happiest with the rude song “Keep your hands off my fan” Kathy Burke has provided for her to (sort of) sing to cover the set change between Acts Three and Four.
Paul Wills’s room designs (backed by a fan-shaped window) are attractive. The costumes look a little poverty-stricken — perhaps deliberately, to make us feel that Wilde’s characters do not live in a world so different from our own. Unfortunately they do, and we ignore this at our peril.