By Brent Schaus
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Lord Darlington
With its production of Oscar Wilde’s satire Lady Windermere’s Fan at Langham Court Theatre, the Victoria Theatre Guild achieves some wondrous theatricality. However, if you’ll pardon the sports metaphor, they are like a winning junior league hockey team with deep pockets and blazing talent, but not quite at professional calibre. As a result, Lady Windermere’s Fan has shining moments, but the execution is sometimes weak.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is an example of the “Well-Made Play,” in the tradition of French playwrights Eugene Scribe and George Feydeau. So, the witty plot can be quite ornate. Lady Windermere is about to host a ball. She appears to be in a loving marriage with Lord Windermere, who has bought her the titular fan as a birthday gift. The action ignites when the Duchess of Berwick visits and suggests that “all of London knows” Lord Windermere has been seen spending too much time alone with Mrs. Erlynne. Erlynne has been out of London society for some time — rumour is that her past is laced with scandal — and she seeks a way back in. A confrontation ensues between Lord and Lady Windermere, resulting in Lord Windermere inviting Erlynne to Lady Windermere’s party. Shocked and dismayed, Lady Windermere considers leaving her husband for Lord Darlington. Scandal, reputation and hypocrisy are explored as the play heads to its satisfying conclusion.
The production’s costumes, hair, makeup, and set design deserve special mention. A lavish production, one is frequently mesmerized by the beauty and quality of the costumes. The final act, harmonizing the fan and a character’s costume, is a stroke of brilliance. Hair design changes with each scene: for some characters, the design escalates from day-to-day, to the gay formality of a ball, to the harried look of someone on the run. One of the strongest audience reactions occurred when the stage revolved to reveal the next set. It would be easy to watch this production “with the sound off,” as it were, and be quite taken by the sheer spectacle.
Key to a production of Oscar Wilde’s work is the ability to maintain a quick pace, while respecting the intricacies of the language. Wilde was a genius at creating the 19th century equivalent of the sound bite, and Lady Windermere’s Fan is filled with them. Unfortunately, some of these sound bites are lost in this interpretation. The subtle emphasis required, like dynamics in an orchestral score, are overlooked — a mark of an amateur production. Equally distracting is the use of the upper-class London-Oxford-Cambridge accent (sometimes called “received pronunciation”): some actors use it, some don’t, and still others float in and out of the accent. The result can be quite distracting.
Still, there are some very strong performances and a number of wonderful exchanges in the play. Morgan Ambrose as Lady Windermere is ravishing, moving with refined elegance. She conveys Windermere’s wounds with beauty. Elizabeth Whitmarsh is a delight as the slightly batty and interfering Duchess of Berwick. Wendy Magahay as Mrs. Erlynne appears ill-at-ease, at first, in the role of social pariah. As her character arcs towards insight and “heart,” Magahay brings warmth and complexity to the part. One of the finest exchanges in the production takes place between her Erlynne and the always-good Adam Holroyd as Lord Windermere. They find the balance between melodrama, wit and humanity, while keeping the pace moving. Some of the finer performances are in the smallest roles: Alasdair Howie comes closest to a Wildean dandy, Jo Barnes as Lady Plymdale is angular, lovely and menacing (perhaps she’d have been a stronger choice as Mrs. Erlynne?) and Charlie Baird is a delight as the manservant Parker.
In the final analysis, evaluation of the Victoria Theatre Guild’s production depends on whether it’s seen as an amateur, or professional, production. It is easily one of the finest community productions I’ve witnessed. However, by setting their standards so very high, they risk being compared to most professional productions, in which case there is room to grow. For lovers of spectacle, and fans of Oscar Wilde, it is a fine evening of theatre. M
Lady Windermere’s Fan
Wed. to Sat. at 8pm, Sat. at 2pm
Until Dec. 8 at Langham Court Theatre