Lady Windermere’s Fan was Oscar Wilde’s first major theatrical success and its mix of dysfunctional family relationships, secrets and lies and, -of course – immensely quotable dialogue, remains very appealing. The Royal Exchange’s Artistic Director Greg Hersov has opted for a solid, traditional approach to the material; though the set is fairly minimal, there are some truly beautiful costumes on display, as designed by Ashley Martin-Davis. But Hersov is too canny a director to let this visual opulence overshadow the production and Wilde’s wit is given room to shine.
The plot is contrived but effective: the recently married Lady Windermere becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair with Mrs Erlynne, a woman with something of a racy reputation. Tension ensues when Lord Windermere insists she be invited to the couple’s party to help to integrate her into society, and Lady Windermere decides to run off with her admirer, Lord Darlington. As ever, all is not as it seems, and the misunderstandings pile up, while Wilde holds up a mirror to the morality and hypocrisy of Victorian society. The tone of the play becomes significantly less frivolous as various secrets are revealed and Mrs Erlynne attempts to stop Lady Windermere from making the same mistake she made 20 years earlier.
Lysette Anthony is well-cast as the attractive but misunderstood Mrs Erlynne; she’s a seductive figure in the first half of the play, but her performance strengthens considerably as her tragic secret is revealed. Her scenes with Laura Rees, touching in the role of Lady Windermere, are the most emotionally emgaging of the production, while Eliza Collings displays impeccable comic timing in her small role as Lady Agatha and comes close to stealing the show.
Not all the performances are of quite the same calibre; there’s an over-the-top quality to the pivotal third act where the gentlemen smoke cigars and quaff whiskey. While some of the male cast members have little to work with, Milo Twomey is convincing as the emotionally torn Lord Windermere, and Samuel Collings is reliably strong in the rather thin role of Lady Windermere’s would-be suitor Lord Darlington.
Wilde’s words of course still have the capacity to delight, even after 120 years. Many of his most famous lines appear here, including “I can resist nothing but temptation” and “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Wilde can also be touching when he chooses (“what a pity that in life we only get our lessons when they are of no use to us” muses Lady Windermere in the final act), and sometimes he’s strangely prophetic, as in Mrs Erlynne’s discussion of politics: “He thinks like a Tory, and talks like a Radical, and that’s so important nowadays”.