The Vaudeville Theatre’s Oscar Wilde season, a quartet of his best-known plays, opened with Kathy Burke’s production of his 1892 comedy, Lady Windermere’s Fan. It is, in turn, broad, farcical, uproarious and cloyingly sentimental – a Victorian melodrama infused with Wilde’s famous dry wit, that plays today as a quaint and enjoyable museum piece. The writer’s musings on embryonic gender politics and the hypocrisy of high society can be found grafted to the oldest of plots, namely a scandalising family secret.
Contemporary critics of Wilde noted his success in using his comedic talents to explore social mores and in 2018 that still holds true. Today, all concerned are inclined to play the disreputable moments for laughs; a sop to an unshockable modern audience; but this remains a story that wrings emotion and pathos from the straitjacket of propriety binding its characters.
Burke’s adaptation fills the stage with grand and grotesque comic performances – the dashing but despairing Lord Darlington, hammed nicely by Kevin Bishop, Jennifer Saunders’s domineering (and scene-stealing) Duchess of Berwick, David O’Reilly’s camp and waspish Cecil Graham - leaving the play’s few dedicated serious and sentimentalising moments looking isolated. That this weighting isn’t to the play’s overall detriment is down to the energy and exuberance of a great cast, who chew over the pomposity and ignorance of their characters with house-pleasing relish.
The flamboyant treatment, exemplified by a delicious end of third act filler (in place of a speech given by Wilde himself in the original production), which won’t be spoiled here, inevitably means the privileging of farce over the play’s more sardonic touches. Some of Wilde’s most famous lines – “cynicism is knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars” may have been dulled by repetition, but there’s still a thrill from hearing them in their original context. The jokes, though often employed in service to crude gender archetypes (albeit refracted through the prism of a highly stratified society) still land.
All the play requires from its audience in 2018 is a small mental adjustment; an embracing of the mannered mode of the period that was, in any event, a comic lunge at the glitterati Wilde hoped and expected would attend his modern and fashionable play. It may no longer be that, but it remains a charming and funny spectacle for those ready to go back in time.
Lady Windermere's Fan is playing until 7 April, book your tickets here.
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