Oscar Wilde famously had a keen eye for the hypocrisy and double standards underpinning the facade of polite London society as displayed prominently in his play The Importance of Being Earnest. But his wit and insight were in full force from his first theatrical work about the hard line between good and bad women.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is set in the ballrooms and salons of London’s finest socialites and follows the eponymous Lady (Aimee Honor), an orphan recently married who prides herself on her social status and the respectable reputation she maintains despite her upbringing. However, her husband Lord Windermere (Kendall Drury) has dragged their name into scandal by making the acquaintance of a disreputable woman Mrs Erlynne (Michela Noonan). The betrayal by her husband of her highest moral ideals unsettles Lady Windermere’s sense of self and leads her to jump deeper into scandal and abandon her household. Through Wilde’s wit, the script sees through society’s hard and fast rules about respectability into the more complex and murky reality of human error and forgiveness.
Director Jess Davis illustrated the context of Victorian England and the stuffy guidelines of society by projecting quotes from Florence Hartley’s the Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manuel of Politeness and Cecil B Hartley’s gentleman’s version onto the stage curtain between scenes. These quotes explained Lady Windermere’s stiff stance on reputation and morality but emphasised the hypocrisy of the other socialites who were as quick to forgive Mrs Erlynne as they were to condemn her. Rather than playing into Wilde’s humour and exaggerated characterisation, Davis directed this production with a seriousness reflected in the slower pacing and the touch of melodrama in the central characters’ disputes which amplified the message of compassion and forgiveness as opposed scorn and ostracisation.
But there certainly were elements of comedy in the buffooning men of Lord Windermere’s circle including the pompous Cecil Graham (Peter David Allison) and the silly drunkard Mr Dumby (Carlin Hurdis). David M Bond’s portrayal of Lord Augustus Lorton and his doggish pursuit of Mrs Erlynne provided particular humour for his commitment to shamelessness. On the other hand, the unrequited love of Lord Darlington (Sam Walter) and the pride of Lady Windermere added romantic drama to supplement and even instigate other concerns of social standing, adultery, and the ever-ongoing debate of men and women’s strengths and weaknesses. Honor’s performance of Lady Windermere was well done with a nice balance of stubborn and sentimental which bounced off the more jaded characterisation of Noonan’s Mrs Erlynne.
The production design rounded out Davis’s representation of the times with sitting rooms designed by Tom Fahy and a particularly glittering ball scene with gowns and bright jewels designed by Peter Henson. It was the overall prominence of shine and sparkle that helped realise the thin facade of London society so delicately painted over argument, scandal, and capriciousness. Even a small pinprick in the absolutes of propriety and the raging, complex, messy reality of life full of mistakes and misunderstanding comes tumbling out.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is running at the Genesian Theatre from March 19th – May 7th
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