Peter Hall’s production of Oscar Wilde’s "Lady Windermere’s Fan", is only an average affair, meaning I have seen much more lavish and stylish productions. The show is lacking in flair and is at times clumsy. But, so good is Wilde’s drama one still cannot help but enjoy it.
Wilde’s delightful comedy concerns high society Victorian morals and hypocrisy. Lady Windermere discovers that her husband has been seeing a mysterious new woman who has moved into the area, called Mrs Erlynne, who has a bad reputation amongst the society ladies of the town. Feeling betrayed by her husband’s behaviour she decides to respond favourably to Lord Darlington’s advances towards her. However, what she doesn’t know is that Mrs Erlynne is blackmailing her husband with a secret, which if it became public would destroy his wife, emotionally as well as her reputation and good standing.
The strength of the play is the witty and intelligent dialogue that is simply a joy to hear. Also, in many ways the drama has not dated since peoples’ reputations are still destroyed by scandals. The nature of the scandals may have changed, but the harm done to reputations remains the same!
Vanessa Redgrave produces a fine performance as Mrs Erlynne, particularly in the last act when to protect her daughter from scandal she sacrifices her own reputation and faces ruin yet again. The gallantry with which she accepts her ‘ruin’ at the hand of Lord Windermere, exposes the hypocrisy that is at the very heart of this play. Joely Richardson (Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter in real life) is a competent Lady Windermere, but lacks elegance. The real star is the veteran Googie Withers who sparkles and impresses as The Duchess of Berwick. There is also outstanding performances from Peter Gordon as Parker and Roger Hammond as Mr Dumby who are superb as two elderly mischievous gentlemen.
The set design by John Gunter is a frugal affair, while practical, it lacks the flamboyancy of the period. In fact the stage seems quite bare surrounded on all sides by patterned net curtains with only a few pieces of furniture. This gives the play a parsimonious feel and certainly does not capture the elegant atmosphere that one associates with Wilde’s plays.
The show has been reasonably received by the popular press...MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, “Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson… bring freshness, immediacy and spontaneity to Wilde's faintly arthritic society drama.” BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE FOR THE TIMES SAYS, “The opportunity to see Vanessa Redgrave at her warmest.” JONATHAN MYERSON for THE INDEPENDENT says, “There's plenty to enjoy in this production, nothing to surprise you and just a little too much to underwhelm.” MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL says, “For all its melodramatic trappings, the play is deeply moving.” PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Peter Hall's production of Wilde's first play seems curiously underpowered and is surprisingly short of aphorisms. "
This is nowhere near the best production of "Lady Windermere’s Fan", but it is still worth seeing.
Links to full reviews from newspapers...
Next review by Tom Keatinge
Perhaps I was expecting too much, however the combination of Oscar Wilde, Sir Peter Hall and the mother and daughter partnership of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson seemed too tempting to miss. As it turned out, this production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, never quite lived up to what I had so dearly wished for – but then maybe in hindsight what I expected was beyond my Wilde-est dreams… That is not to say that this is not a highly entertaining, well acted, and at times thought provoking production, indeed it is quite what one would hope for from Oscar Wilde fayre; it’s just that the sparkle I had hoped for from this artistic concoction never quite revealed itself.
Like much of Wilde’s work, this is a sociological study, of human reaction to the abnormal and unusual, a commentary on the straight-jacket of society, and the way in which conformity can be the most destructive course of action. In this case, simple misunderstanding caused by the eponymous fan, and stoked in the mind of the innocent, threatens to destroy, in all innocence, the very fabric that is so desperately guarded.
As Lady Windermere, Joely Richardson’s presence on stage embodies just the innocence of one who is almost too good for Society, and too fragile for the truth. This was an assured, sensitive and delightful performance that she did not allow to be overshadowed by her heavyweight mother. Of course, with her considerable pedigree, Vanessa Redgrave portrays the outsider, the social misfit, whose past means she has to tolerate the boyish fascinations and attention of grown men, and the disdain and suspicion of their women. And it is this conflict that so nearly leads to the ruin of the purity this is embodied by Lady Windermere. She does not know the true identity of Mrs Erlynne, but suspects that her husband’s fascination with this lady is mal-intended and signifies a loss of love for his wife – of course nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed it is this very love that leads him to act as he does. However, misinterpretation and misfortune brings us to the very brink of disaster as Lord Windermere’s efforts to ensure Mrs Erlynne’s true identity remains unknown have almost the reverse effect.
Whilst it is the off-stage family that grabs the majority of the headlines, it is David Yelland’s performance as Lord Windermere that stands out. His is a powerful and passionate portrayal of a man so assured in his actions yet pathetically defenceless as they threaten to ruin the one thing he is so desperately trying to protect – his wife. Others shine too: John McCallum as bumbling old Lord Augustus Lorton, turned puppy dog by the attentions of Mrs Erlynne, and Googie Withers, who is perfectly cast in that very particular Wilde character, The Duchess of Berwick, commentating hopelessly inaccurately, yet with utter conviction, on events as they unfold.
Notwithstanding my perhaps unreasonably founded disappointment (sentiment is a tough emotion to control), this is a terrific production, with all the polish and sophistication one would expect from Sir Peter, and all the marvellously entertaining quirks, observations and light moments of social commentary that make Wilde as relevant today as he was in his own time.