THEATRE / The little goose grows up

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THIS WEEK, authors who have been dead for an inexcusable number of years have sent their actors prancing about in thrall to moral and social codes of ludicrous antiquity. Luckily, we don't have to believe what the characters believe. We only need to believe that they do.

By this test, and by most others, Philip Prowse's production of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan is a triumph. As designer, he has made a domestic cathedral of the Windermere drawing-room, a great semi- circle in sky-blues and salmon-pinks, stretching up to embrace an invisible dome and an extremely visible chandelier. This vast feminine shrine is contrasted with young Lord Darlington's bachelor pad, all squared off with screens apparently done up by Aubrey Beardsley.

The ladies chez Windermere dress to match the sofa cushions, which suggests a truly alarming sense of style. Most terrifying is Jennifer Hilary, a Duchess of Berwick who snaps out epigrams, commands and good advice with iron-clad confidence. She leads around a smugly subservient daughter whom she marries off to a rich young Australian; he will then be kept firmly in his place which, whatever he may think, is not Australia. We are in the 1890s, the age of Victoria approaching its terminus, and the play, like Wilde's other social comedies, brings centre stage the world of snobbery and duplicity to which people keep making off-handed allusions in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Like Wilde's other plays, too, Lady Windermere has the lineaments of melodrama; but here lines that are impossibly purple on the page come out in credible black and white. Lady Windermere, young and sheltered, is incensed to see her husband paying court to Mrs Erlynne, an older woman with a mysterious but indisputable Past. Of course there are reasons, of course the demon turns out to be an angel of mercy, but there is plenty of suspense in finding out the details.

Amanda Elwes transforms the innocent little goose into a troubled, thoughtful woman - a woman who truly believes in the standards to which the others pay lip-service. Francesca Annis's Mrs Erlynne matches her in seriousness, if not quite in her passion, after swanning enjoyably around in scarlet-woman mode. Only Rupert Frazer's Lord Windermere remains an unconscionable stick; and since the production leaves him in pointed isolation at the end, this could be intentional.

This is not the Wilde play with the line about sincerity being like an iron girder in a house of cards. But we get the girders and we get the cards, a whole pack of them, led by David Foxxe as a fat frog-faced dandy with a green carnation ('the reason for the Nineties being gay', according to Noel Coward, though the phrase is not - infuriatingly - from his musical of this play). He might be Wilde; and he conveys, as does the whole play, the sense of relishing and fearing his society simultaneously. Frank Middlemass huffs and puffs endearingly as a resolute old suitor and Simon Dutton cuts a figure as a resolute young one, Lady Windermere's greatest fan. Walk through this play with standard West End elegance and it falls to bits; what it needs, and gets, is a rich environment with people inside.

The Lady from the Sea offers a spare environment with people inside, and that's all right, too. The set features a lot of rocks arranged on a grid, which rises from the stage floor as the play starts and overlooks the action thereafter. Well, the play is partly about getting one's rocks off. What actually happens is landlocked domestic drama that Lindsay Posner directs with great finesse. Josette Simon plays Ellida, the self-styled mermaid who equates freedom with escape from her doctor husband, and she makes a beautiful centrepiece. She does not supply much depth but I doubt if the character has any; she is more of a predicament than a person.

Her old man compensates, though; in his frock-coat and whiskers Pip Donaghy seems at first a caricature of a buttoned-up Ibsenite physician, but a heart beats beneath. He is formal, then puzzled, then wounded, then enormously, tactfully caring; it is no wonder that, granted her liberty, Ellida uses it to stay with him. Liam de Staic, as the Stranger who claims her, is just real enough to make it a fair contest.

Ellida's two stepdaughters play out their own variants on her drama of choice. Emily Watson makes the younger one more stridently viperish than necessary but Paul Higgins is deliciously vain as the young doomed sculptor who vaguely woos her. The play offers masculine extremes of love and self-absorption with Sean Baker charting a careful course between them as the tutor who wins the elder daughter by default; she, as Matilde Ziegler makes achingly clear, accepts him because she has nowhere else to go. Peter Kelly wraps the play up most satisfactorily as the local jack-of-all- trades who has difficulty pronouncing the word 'acclimatise' but finally manages to say it when Ellida finally manages to do it. A hard word well said, a hard play well done. Hardest of all must be Corneille's Le Cid, the play that in 1637 ushered in French classical tragedy. The Wilde and Ibsen productions achieve their success in part by scaling down the rhetoric. You cannot do this with Corneille, and though the director, Jonathan Kent, finds some room for wit he stakes most on passion. Sometimes this amounts to fervent groping, amorous or murderous: wrong, either way. Duncan Bell plays the title role with his sword drawn and his shirt undone; he is usually on his way to or from some duel or battle, and he always wins. He loses the play, though, to the two women who love him. Peter J Davison's set is dominated by a pair of great gold frames, one of which functions as a two-way mirror. While one heroine orates in front of it the other is seen behind, suffering in silence.

The more active is Ximena, who loves the Cid until he kills her father, by way of avenging an insult to his own. She then becomes a fury, never admitting to mixed feelings though obviously possessed by them; Susan Lynch hurls herself at the role, and though she does not always connect with it she is thrilling when she does. Meanwhile the king's daughter, too far above the hero to marry him, is a prey to alternating varieties of despair; Samantha Bond suffers with terrific poise. The last word, though, is with urbanity, represented by Bernard Lloyd as the king. Ranjit Bolt's rhymed translation sounds especially good coming out of him. You begin sceptical of the play's greatness, and end convinced of it. It's a world.

Noel Coward was a less resourceful lyricist than Cole Porter, and a far less accomplished composer, but in the joint tribute Let's Do It, he comes out on top since, having a playwright's instincts, he wrote songs of greater theatrical presence. Performing pianist Peter Greenwell gets all the juice out of 'Mrs Worthington' and all the sorrow out of 'If Love Were All' without over-stating either of them. Returning veteran Pat Kirkwood makes another good case for simplicity. But the twin subjects go essentially uncontrasted.