You might book tickets for Oscar Wilde in the West End and expect a sparkling comedy. It’s not out of the question, especially when the peerless, legendary, superlatives-are-not-enough, force of nature Kathy Burke, known for her iconic roles in comedies, is directing and when Burke has managed to persuade the peerless, legendary etc Jennifer Saunders to return to the stage after two decades.
Lady Windermere’s Fan isn’t really a comedy, though. Burke has directed it as one, but the laughs are few and far between. Sure it has some of Wilde’s most famous aphorisms, deployed weightily, portentously, unimaginatively by the cast looking down the barrel of the auditorium as if to say ‘this is a famous bit, now laugh’. So: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’. These quotes, so often taken out of context and printed onto iPhone cases, mousemats, notebook covers, prints that lifestyle bloggers put onto their bedroom walls are pretty obviously not meant to be taken as profound statements. After every single one of those packaged little witticisms another character will question what it actually means.
Lord Darlington No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Dumby We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars? Upon my word, you are very romantic to-night, Darlington.
Lord Darlington I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
Duchess of Berwick What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.
Lord Darlington I think I had better not, Duchess. Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out. Good-bye!
Because it seems to be a play that’s quite a lot about not saying what you want to say, and instead disguising sincerity and soul-baring with well constructed nuggets of nonsense. It seems to be a play about the loveliness, and ultimate uselessness, of wit. It’s what the upper classes use to hide the fact that what they really want to say is ‘she’s a slut’ or ‘he’s a cheating bastard’.
Young Lady Windermere is throwing a party as she comes of age (she’s 21). Her husband forces her to invite Mrs Erlynne, an older woman of disrepute with whom Lady W thinks Lord W is having an affair. ‘If she comes here I’ll slap her across the bonce with my fan,” says Lady W. Fair enough. Anyway she turns up, Lady W does not follow through with the threat, and we find out that Mrs Erlynne is Lady W’s mum. Things get a bit confused, everyone thinks everyone is sleeping with everyone else but they’re not. As farcical as it sounds, the play is a bittersweet, melancholy little dance. But Burke’s production seems to take the lines at surface level, mistaking wit for humour, and they’re not always the same thing.
Weirdly, it’s only Jennifer Saunders, playing her lines for the biggest laughs, who seems to have any great depth. Her voice shrill, chirruping, almost slurring her words, and forcing each line out at the end of her breath, she seems like the classic Wildean harridan at first. But the humour is clearly a façade, and there are plenty of moments when she either looks lost and panicky in facial asides to the audience, or when she gets irritated at the whole antiphony of wit that these gossiping classes seem to speak in.
While Saunders is clearly enjoying the part, she also plays it as if the Duchess herself relishes indulging in the stereotypes of the forceful older woman, knowing that playing to type gives her stature and status in society. Her smile always seems a bit forced, and that underlying recognition of the silliness of it all gives her a huge amount of depth as a character.
Maybe that’s because Saunders’ comedy has always been only barely holding back tragedy. If Edina and Patsy weren’t so funny, they’d be devastating. Saunders knows how to layer these things – as did Wilde – and it shows.
Dignity characterises Samantha Spiro’s performance as the supposed harlot Mrs Erlynne. She enters every scene – in a stunning matte black dress – with purpose, poise, control, seemingly aware that all she can do to hold on to her precarious position in polite society (everyone thinks she’s a prostitute) is to act like she doesn’t care. What sets Wilde’s play apart from its late Victorian moral context is that, unlike a load of plays that came before it (Odette, East Lynne) which featured a mother who had abandoned her child, Mrs Erlynne does not reform and only barely repents. The ending isn’t one of resolution and reunion, but an uneasily contented peace in which only the audience knows the whole story.
Rather than a mask, as with the other characters, Mrs Erlynne uses wit as a weapon to disarm her judgmental opponents and to stick up for herself. But Spiro’s brassiness falters when she worries that her daughter is about to make the same mistake she did. During Mrs Erlynne’s speech to her daughter that a mother’s place is with her child, she begs Lady Windermere to go back to her husband, whatever his faults, for the sake of their child, and the earnestness of Spiro’s delivery – admittedly in a tonally anomalous section of the play – doesn’t work as well as when she’s being ballsy.
Everyone else is pretty much Wilde 101, and pretty dull for it. Kevin Bishop is amusing as the fawning Lord Darlington, and Lord and Lady W are well cast: Grace Molony plays Lady Windermere quite forthright and frantic, and she and Joshua James make a convincing young couple, although James is a bit weedy and nasal, and could well be recast as Earnest’s Reverend Chasuble.
But they’re all playing for laughs, and it’s hard to play a play for laughs when there aren’t many laughs to play for. Above all, this is a sad play. It’s sad that the class system is so ingrained and is based on outward appearance. It’s sad, too, that the play does not resolve in the neatly satisfactory way of, say, Earnest. Each of the characters only learns some of the truth in the end, and each has had a relationship broken, and reformed in a diminished way. Lady W can’t really trust her husband, Lord Augustus can’t trust his wife, Lord W can’t be sure that Mrs Erlynne won’t barge back in demanding more hush money, the Duchess has lost her daughter to an Australian. But the production only hits its beats properly when it sniffs a funny line, and everything else feels like filler as we wait for the next funny line.
To underscore the face value approach of the production, Paul Wills’ design has a large window running the width of the stage shaped like a fan, and the floorboards emanate – yes, like a fan – from a vanishing point upstage centre.
Pallour washes over the production’s design, and the late Victorian drawing room where most of the action takes place is a pale, mottled pink as if someone’s only put a layer of undercoat over plaster.
Wills’ design also includes some wonderful costumes, of which Saunders gets the pick: first she comes on dressed as a pick’n’mix bag in purple and white stripes, then later as a glass of red wine. Both accompanied by incredible hats.
One long scene change in the first half is a bit awkward. The curtain comes down and nothing happens for a minute. But in the second half there’s another scene change that comes with a front-of-cloth comedy song from Saunders, ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Fan, Sir’ (written by Burke, which is brilliant). As enjoyable as the interlude is, it sits there awkwardly and inexplicably.
This is a very traditional, no frills production (Saunders’ costumes aside). It fulfils Dominic Dromgoole’s brief in putting on the Oscar Wilde season, which is to explore proscenium plays in their original settings. This production could have been put on 100 years ago. It makes no concession to the 21st century, not in costume, delivery, set, interpretation – nor should it have to. But it suffers by comparison to Wilde’s other works in tone and structure, and by comparison to audience expectation in that it’s not that funny. Not that that’s enough to prevent me from continuing to worship Kathy Burke.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is on until 22 April 2018 at the Vaudeville Theatre. Click here for more details.