This is the second play in Dominic Drumgoole’s Oscar Wilde season in the West End and it is directed by Kathy Burke. I attended this production with some trepidation because, although I really admire Oscar Wilde and find him very witty; his plays are full of arch bon mots, but this can make his characters cool and short on compassion. I often find myself laughing at what they say but I have little empathy for their plight.
However, Kathy Burke really brings out the difference between how the actions of men and the actions of women were perceived, by society, at the turn of the last century. She makes us aware of how sympathetic Oscar Wilde was to that difference. He demonstrates real dexterity in pinpointing this and he mocks it mercilessly. This is a modern take on a play that is ultimately about the empowerment of women. Sam Spiro is excellent as Mrs Erlynne, the unrepentant scarlet woman, she perfected the brittle, sharp exterior protecting her secret and the emotions she did not wish to show.
Jennifer Saunders plays The Duchess of Berwick, in full-on dame mode. She sails into each scene with a new wonderful hat, drops her witty insights, sows the seeds of anarchy, and sails off. A wonderfully written cameo role, beautifully delivered.
It is the men in this play who are shallow. They are the real figures of fun, Joshua James is good as the insecure but supportive Lord Windermere. Kevin Bishop is excellent as Lord Darlington; charming and in love, but likely untrustworthy. The scene with all the male characters, drunk, in the library is well done and very funny. This play is so full of famous lines that occasionally it feels like a litany of Wildean quotations.
The set is cleverly done, all pastels and relatively simple, with echoes of the titular fan throughout – the shape of the windows and even the motif on the stage curtains. This is in contrast to the costumes. The men are formal, I am convinced that Lord Darlington and Jacob Rees-Mogg have the same butler. The ladies are dressed in full rich concoctions designed to demonstrate a time when it was more important to show off ones wealth than ones taste.
Being a play in four acts, there is an entr’acte between the first and second and between the third and fourth. These were not written by Wilde and they felt out of place, the humour was crude by comparison, but they were common at the time of writing and it did give the production a period feel.
This was a very good production of a sparkling play, it made me see Wilde’s writing in a new light and I am looking forward to seeing the others in this promising season.