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A CurtainUp London Review
Lady Windermere's Fan
Sir Peter Hall brings two of the Redgrave acting dynasty, Vanessa Redgrave and her younger daughter, Joely Richardson, to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to play mother and daughter in Oscar Wilde's first play to be produced in London at the St James Theatre. When he was asked about it, he said, "Oh, the play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure!" In fact Lady Windemere's Fan was a great hit and made the playwright £7,000 in its first year. Some contemporary critics complained that Wilde used the play as a vehicle for his witty epigrams, others that it presented an old fashioned view of society.
In case you unfamiliar with the plot: Lady Windermere (Joely Richardson) has received an ornate fan as a birthday present from her husband. After being told by the gossipy Duchess of Berwick (Googie Withers) that her husband is calling on a woman of bad reputation, a Mrs Erlynne of Curzon Street, Mayfair she finds substantial payments to this woman in Lord Windermere's bank book and concludes that what she's been told is true. What's more, Lord Windermere (David Yelland) asks her to invite Mrs Erlynne to her birthday gathering. She refuses but Mrs Erlynne (Vanessa Redgrave) comes to the party anyway and there is a near confrontation. The plot thickens when Lady Windermere decides to run away to the rooms of a dandy admirer, Lord Darlington (Jack Davenport). After reading the letter meant for Lord Windermere, Mrs Erlynne pursues her and persuades her to return home without Windermere finding out, leaving her new fan behind. Later the men gather at Darlington's place and the fan is found but Mrs Erlynne appears and says that it was she who left the fan, thereby ruining her reputation and chances of marrying Lord Augustus Lorton (John McCallum). The motive for this act of self sacrifice is explained when it is revealed to the audience, but not to Lady Windermere, that Mrs Erlynne is her mother, who ran away from her father when Lady Windermere was a baby.
Wilde's play stands up very well even in the light of the social and sexual revolution of the last hundred years. Scandals of sexual indiscretion, secrecy and hypocricy remain with us. When Mrs Erlynne spells out to her daughter the perils of following one's heart (as she did), Wilde is perhaps thinking about his own dilemma, whether to openly leave with Bosie or to stay with his wife Constance and his sons. Admittedly parts of the play are melodrama.
My main criticism of the production, apart from the set, is that both the Duchess of Berwick, who is a nasty woman bringing bad news, and the blackmailing Mrs Erlynne are portrayed as too sympathetic. The scene when the men gather in Davenport's rooms after clubbing to two in the morning, gives Wilde an opportunity to naturally slip in all those witty epigrams, many best known out of their original context.
Whatever the play's faults, what the audience have come to see is delivered. Vanessa Redgrave is on top form -- tall, elegant, full of personality and with great stage presence. Her daughter, Joely Richardson, is more diffident but excels in those scenes with her mother. I liked too David Yelland's upright Lord Windermere. Jack Davenport seems not aristocratic enough for Darlington. The supporting ensemble picture Victorian society. Cecil Graham, a young wit delivers many of Wilde's best lines but Darlington has the gem, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are lookng at the stars".
The plays opens behind a giant fan through which we can see people gathering and hear some of Wilde's wittiest comments on society. The same giant fan design is reflected in a gauze lining for the walls of the set. Sir Peter could probably direct this play blindfold with his hands tied behind his back and it shows in this production which has no surprises but oozes with assured, confident direction.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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