With lockdown restrictions in place and all theatres closed the business of reviewing has had to shift indoors for the time being. The good news is that there are many options becoming available with reruns of successful shows being streamed and existing as recordings which one can watch at any time. So far plans and material have emerged from both the National and RSC, the Royal Court has released the highly charged Cyprus Avenue and of course we are no longer confined to theatres in this country. This weekend a Broadway production of Oklahoma with Hugh Jackman and Maureen Lipman has been made available online.
So, in some sort of attempt to replicate the norm I settled down in my armchair to watch a 2018 production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan. This was part of Dominic Dromgoole’s four play season from the Vaudeville Theatre and was being relayed by Marquee TV (https://www.marquee.tv/watch/wilde-ladywindermeresfan); I found an online cast list in lieu of a programme and a 15 minute interval was observed – I even managed a small round of applause at the end. Now, in a further bid to carry on as normal, here’s my review.
Although Oscar Wilde had written a couple of plays before Lady Windermere’s Fan it is with this piece that he really got into his stride. On the surface it is a simple enough Victorian melodrama about scandals in high society, a fallen woman, absentee parents and conventional morality. It is written in Wilde’s trademark style being full of epigrams and often quoted witticisms throughout, giving the whole thing an artificial – even superficial air. However, this production was thankfully able to delve a little deeper and bring some real emotion to the surface suggesting a reality that can so often be missing and make Wilde’s work seem like a triumph of style over substance.
The star name in the piece is Jennifer Saunders as the Duchess of Berwick (Lady Bracknell prototype) but in truth she has relatively little to do and is almost entirely incidental to the main plot. That Saunders does it very well is beyond doubt bringing all her comic expertise to bear and stealing the show whenever she appears. Wilde’s slightly odd construction, however, omits the character entirely from the second half and so Saunders appears in a slightly strange music hall interlude singing the risqué “Keep Your Hands Off My Fan” (written by director Kathy Burke). Amusing enough, it is an odd interpolation which appears to be there to cover a scene change and give Saunders something to do – it has very little to do with the play.
The other very strong performance comes from Samantha Spiro as the “woman with a past”, Mrs Erlynne, who makes a relatively late entrance in the first half and totally dominates the second. Spiro’s performance is heartfelt and, towards the end, quite moving. It would have been quite easy to play the part as a complete scarlet woman stereotype and Spiro’s arch delivery on first entering suggests that this might be the case but thankfully this is avoided as gradually the character’s veneer is peeled away to reveal someone wounded but defiant.
For the rest of the cast I felt it was pretty much Wilde by numbers; adequate but nothing to set the world alight. Both the Windermeres are written as ciphers around whom the action revolves and although Grace Molony and Joshua James do their best with the dialogue it all seems terribly unengaging. David O’Reilly as Cecil Graham is basically Wilde inserting himself into the action dripping in languidly delivered bon mots. As butler Parker, Matthew Darcy has a nice running gag announcing other character’s entrances and even steals a sneaky gay kiss from one of the party guests in a discrete nod to Wilde’s sexuality. I was disappointed with Kevin Bishop’s portrayal of Lord Darlington who should really be a sexually threatening louche lounge lizard who is all surface and no substance. Bishop came across as far too sincere and honest; an opportunity missed, I fear.
The costumes are, not unexpectedly, spectacular revealing instantly the wealth and privilege of the characters around whom the action is built. The set appropriately enough is dominated by fan shapes. Both the radiating wooden floor and the large picture window at the back mean that fans are symbolically present throughout and the decorated front cloth is a salutary reminder that social conventions and coding were often delivered through the deployment of a lady’s fan. In essence they could be used to entice or repel, to demonstrate or conceal and the action at the birthday party amply underscores this under the generally capable direction of Kathy Burke. However, I’m not totally sure that she judged always the tone quite correctly. Whilst Wilde is, of course, famed for his social comedies, Lady Windermere’s Fan isn’t quite as hilarious as may be at first assumed. Remembered more for some of its witticisms than its plot there are occasional laugh points but in essence the situation for the characters is deadly serious and needs to be played that way. The men’s club banter in Darlington’s rooms ran the risk of becoming tedious as verbal one-upmanship began to detract from the main thrust of the plot. It became all to easy to forget that both Lady Windermere and Mrs Erlynne were hidden in the apartment and that discovery could have led to both women’s ruin.
That said, it was mostly a strong account of a play that will always be overshadowed by Earnest and a very pleasant way to spend a locked down afternoon. For these days it is not only Wilde’s characters who find themselves hidebound by strict conventions and modes of behaviour. We have reached a stage (no pun intended) where social distancing is actual rather than perceived and it is not just social shame which may prove our ruin. Perhaps we should retain a shred of hope, however and move forward with a sense of optimism; as Wilde observes in this play “We are all of us in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”.
Although nowhere near as satisfactory an experience as the communal experience provided by being in a theatre audience, this matinee viewing was a success which I intend to repeat. Marquee TV has the other three Wilde plays in the season available plus nearly 20 RSC Shakespeares and (if you’re into it) a myriad of ballet and operatic performances. They have extended their free trial period to 30 days; there are, of course, many other options available too. Fortunately, we have become used to the idea of cinema relays putting staged works on the screen and, on the upside (if there is one) there is no tedious travelling to and from the venue and it is all at a price we can afford or even free.
In an interesting footnote I was looking up something about the play when I came across a medical term I hadn’t heard of before and which I couldn’t help feeling underscored the whole notion of dramatic irony. It’s all about the repression of coughing in social situations; as Boris Johnson often does, I’ll leave it to a medical expert to explain:
Lady Windermere syndrome
In 1992, two researchers published a report of six older women who developed a persistent cough along with night sweats, weight loss and shortness of breath. The women were all healthy and thin and had no history of smoking. All grew out mycobacterium avium-intracellulare, or MAI, from their lung secretions. The authors named it Lady Windermere syndrome, after a fastidious character in the Oscar Wilde play “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” They postulated that the women who developed this infection were too “proper” to cough when they got this bronchitis and so ended up with a persistent infection in the lungs. (“Think Like a Doctor: A Cough Solved” by Lisa Sanders, M.D.)
To avoid Lady Windermere syndrome and the spread of Covid 19 feel free to cough – but into the crook of your elbow please!