"Scandal," announces Cecil Graham in Braham Murray's production of Lady Windermere's Fan, "is gossip made tedious by morality." Wilde's delicious early comedy, seasoned with a touch of melodrama, is about reputation. Young, sweet, puritanical Lady Windermere is anxious to protect hers; Lord Windermere's is compromised by wicked Mrs Erlynne who has sacrificed hers; and Lord Darlington is about to lose his.
In order for the play to work, the importance of reputation must be crystal clear, and the production must convey the hierarchy and rigour of society. This has nothing to do with period costumes and elaborate set dressing and everything to do with behaviour. This is sometimes misinterpreted as making sure your cast spend their time posing as ostentatiously as possible: i.e. being willowy all over the place or standing about reprovingly like a horsehair sofa.
The last London production - over-produced and under-directed - was elegance itself but missed out on the danger. Fortunately, it had a matchless Mrs Erlynne in Francesca Annis. With the exception of David Foxxe's exemplary Cecil Graham (clearly modelled on Wilde himself), you felt as if she alone understood what was at stake. In this new production, the exquisitely gowned Gabrielle Drake spends much of the time behaving with a beguiling, amused contempt for the follies of those around her, but she doesn't quite rise to the challenge when the drama rises to its peak. Annis bravely refused to court the audience's sympathies until the middle of the fourth act when she suddenly cracked open, revealing her true heart. For all its surface wit, this is a terrifyingly prescient play about scandal, shattered illusions, ruined lives and real passion.
You see this in the highly charged performances of Simon Robson and Rebecca Johnson who play their love scenes with a palpable tension, but much of the credit is due to the superb Rosalind Knight as the imperious Duchess of Berwick, a relatively minor character. Thrillingly defiant and utterly convinced of her opinions, she alone convinces you of the world of the play, and the rules and regulations of the society she's so anxious to uphold. Her utter surprise at having discovered Australia on a map, something which in lesser hands might be merely amusing, is gloriously, startlingly funny. I know we've had a glut of productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, but I'd pay good money to see her Lady Bracknell. Any producers out there?Reuse content