Lady Windermere’s Fan

Paul Boyd and Daithí Mac Suibhne in 'Lady Windermere's Fan' by Oscar Wilde.

Paul Boyd and Daithí Mac Suibhne in 'Lady Windermere's Fan' by Oscar Wilde.

Ruby Campbell and Paul Boyd in 'Lady Windermere's Fan' by Oscar Wilde.

Ruby Campbell and Paul Boyd in 'Lady Windermere's Fan' by Oscar Wilde.

This wasn’t exactly Lady Windermere: The Musical, but as, for the umpteenth time, the cast of Bruiser Theatre Company launched into yet another a cappella barber’s shop concoction linking one scene to another, it began to feel like one. The idea, presumably, was to pep up those staid vestiges of Victorian melodrama which cling obdurately to Wilde’s first successful play, and inject an element of knowing post-modernity for MAC audiences to smile at.

For me, it backfired: Lady Windermere’s Fan, for all its profusion of Wildean bons mots and casual witticisms, is at heart a serious drama, and the often startling wrenches in tone between the moral and emotional agonisings of the key protagonists, and the trite close-harmony glosses on their plight (sung out of character by the same actors), seem increasingly condescending and ill-assorted as the evening progresses.

Bruiser Theatre CoThat’s a pity, as there’s some sterling acting in the main dramatic confrontations. Neill Fleming, as Lord Windermere, brings genuine dignity and gravitas to a character who can be a starchy bore, effectively humanising the dilemmas that gnaw him, straight-jacketed as he is by the inflexible social mores of the period. His confrontations with Mrs Erlynne are taut with trepidation, as entire lifetimes hang in the balance, and the precipice that leads to shattered reputations beckons.

Dagmar Döring’s Mrs Erlynne is an implacable opponent, her manoeuvrings unapologetically Machiavellian. Should we see more of her tender side when she soliloquises about her lost daughter? Possibly, but it’s a moot point: in Döring’s interpretation, Erlynne is a hardened case, made thus by the ruthlessly judgemental arbiters of social probity who surround her, in whose company it is not advisable to let deeper, more vulnerable emotions rise to the surface.

They rise a little too explosively in the case of Lord Darlington, whose Act Two declaration of love for Lady Windermere (a youthful, convincingly principled Ruby Campbell) is rattled through at top velocity by Paul Boyd, where some parsing of the intense emotions underlying his declaration would have helped the audience react more empathetically to it. Elsewhere Boyd is excellent as Darlington, slickly propelling the first half of the evening forward with his pristine enunciation of the text, crisp timing, and debonair body language.

Boyd’s Darlington is obviously an aristocrat, and looks like one, though Diana Ennis’s costume designs are not strong on designating the niceties of social stature on which Wilde’s plot is so intimately dependent. Lady Windermere, in drab, heel-length skirt and plain cardigan, more closely resembles a maiden seamstress or shop assistant than a moneyed society hostess, and generally the female characters appear sartorially a cut below what Wilde intended them to be, in a play where the disparity between appearances and reality is so crucial a preoccupation.

The relative anonymity of the costuming is, to be fair, probably influenced by the need for the six actors to multi-part furiously as the fifteen characters of Patrick O’Reilly’s adaptation, modestly trimmed down from the eighteen of Wilde’s original. The rabid multi-tasking, though intrepidly choregraphed by director Lisa May, distracts from the increasingly serious on-stage business the characters are embroiled in, especially when (as inevitably happens) the audience reacts with hilarity to the feverish comings and goings (a hat donned here, a false moustache hoisted there) in front of them. You couldn’t blame them: it was a little like the Keystone Cops on occasion.

Bruiser TheatreThe set is simply conceived for touring purposes, a single flat with gilt picture-frames hung on it providing the backdrop. Two framed doorways flank it, with moveable dining-chairs and a writing bureau completing the stage furnishings. The picture-frames are draped with black curtains, which are periodically whipped aside to reveal singing, grimacing or snooping characters. It’s an effective piece of trompe l’oeil trickery, and drew more laughter. Again, however, one wondered what particular light it was supposed to be throwing on the action, and whether the laughs weren’t ultimately of the cheaper variety.

This tension between the insistent, and increasing seriousness of Wilde’s purpose in Lady Windermere as the action progresses, and the apparent reluctance of director Lisa May to take the play entirely seriously, ultimately leaves a rather muddled impression. 120 years exactly since the work’s premiere, it remains astonishingly modern in its preoccupations with moral hypocrisy, unspoken sexual histories, and the key determiners of social identity. 

Bruiser’s production focuses only intermittently on these, diluting the play’s dramatic impact, and introducing spurious elements of triviality where Wilde has already brilliantly anatomised the trivial, especially in his cuttingly insightful portraits of the play’s male characters, and the desperately shallow, untenable values that they live by. More probing of the text’s unsettling moral recesses and ambiguities, and less playing to the gallery, would have made this a more rewarding, thought-provoking evening.

Terry Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Patrick J. O'Reilly

7 Nov - 8 Dec, 2012 (on tour)

Produced by Bruiser Theatre Company
In the MAC, Belfast

Directed by Lisa May

Composer and Musical Director: Matthew Reeve

Set/Costume Design: Diana Ennis

Lighting Design: James McFetridge

With: Paul Boyd, Ruby Campbell, Dagmar Döring, Neill Fleming, Daithí Mac Suibhne, Angie Waller