It’s an indicator, perhaps, of the sort of clientele the Chelsea Theatre enjoys when a pre-show front of house announcement advises patrons about the usual prohibitions on mobile telephones and flash photography, but also includes a reminder not to make sketches. This, of course, made me consider whether the set would have been worth sketching if there wasn’t a regulation against doing so, assuming, that is, I had a sketch pad with me (I didn’t), and further assuming I could actually sketch with competence (I can’t). Without giving it all away, the stage wall for this production of Lady Windermere’s Fan would not look out of place in a home with a contemporary feel, and could reasonably be considered a piece of modern art.
But if the backdrop was more futuristic than Oscar Wilde’s era, the style in which this play was presented was more vintage, deploying ‘commedia dell’arte’, which dates back at least as far as the sixteenth century. There are plenty of details to be easily found about commedia dell’arte elsewhere, suffice to say that with four performers playing ten characters between them, sometimes to great comic effect in their comings and goings, the masks proved useful to help realise the production’s gender-blind casting of minor characters.
Not that any of the characters come across as though they are ‘minor’, and this is very much an ensemble piece. Any confusion the set might have given as to what era the show is set in is further compounded by the use of recordings of popular music played as though performed by a chamber orchestra. All this, then, would rankle those who like their Oscar Wilde plays performed unadapted.
There remains a faithfulness to the text, and no major departures from the script – it could even be argued that there was a missed opportunity to introduce a little more variation from the original.
The emphasis appeared to be on presenting the show in a fresh way, and this production succeeds in that regard, and to good effect. The exaggerated movements as Lord and Lady Windermere (Tim Atkinson and Venetia Twigg) converse in an early scene do not just fill the performance space and make the stage look busier than it really is. They serve as a metaphor; they dart and dance around like the room like they skirt around certain topics of conversation.
Other characters behave similarly: Dumby (Bryan Moriarty) agrees with one guest at a social gathering that the ‘season’ (of upper-class society engagements) has been delightful, but then is equally agreeable with the Duchess of Berwick (Alice Knapton) when she asserts the same season has been very dull.
Make of this what you will, but there is a fan that is the property of Lady Windermere in Lady Windermere’s Fan. Indeed, we are introduced to it within minutes of the play starting, and it does end up playing a pivotal, if predictably inanimate, part in proceedings. The heightened emotions and expressions will not be to everyone’s taste, but this production holds back from full-out melodrama to provide audiences with nuanced and superb performances.
The elegant and flamboyant style of Oscar Wilde’s writing is, as ever, a delight to see and hear performed, a throwback to the days when even putdowns involved exercising a wide vocabulary, as opposed to the trend in this day to deploy a string of expletives. The pacing, too, was measured and steady, with a level of sophisticated elegance that suited the well-to-do characters. A refreshing take on such a well-known play, this is a credible and compelling production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
When a mysterious new beauty enters high society, the in-crowd are sent scattering outwards, bent utterly backwards and flattened low to find out exactly who they are dealing with. Dismayed to discover her own husband is caught up in the rumours, can young Lady Windermere keep him in line, or will she end up fanning the very fires she is trying so hard to put out? Oscar Wilde’s raucous social comedy pulls apart the intricacies of etiquette and flips expectation rump-over-head in this scathingly funny satire.