When I went to the Shaw Festival to see Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play about a Good Woman, I did not expect to be blown away. The brilliant and ill–fated Oscar Wilde wrote plays as vehicles for his epigrammatic conversation. This play, written between two works of genius, The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Ernest, is usually considered an also–ran. In the hands of director Peter Hinton and set designer Teresa Przybylski, it achieves jaw–dropping beauty and relevance.
Hinton asks you to really see the play, to really look. He is translating a verbal Victorian society into the visual language of today’s culture.
We begin with fashion. Before the curtain rises, beautiful Victorian women cross the stage and freeze in Royal Dolton poses, shifting, the way street mimes do, to focus on their fans, which can open seductively then snap shut like guns. Rufus Wainwright starts to sing, and we wonder where we are…here or there… in this century or two centuries back. Then the curtain opens…but does it? In fact it is not a curtain but a series of panels that open on one side of the stage, like a camera lens, like a director’s eye, revealing a dream room of elegant white. In this partial view, Lady Windermere (played beautifully by Marla McLean) is twirling in happiness and innocence like a girl. Today is her birthday; today she comes of age although she is already married and has a child. And today Oscar Wilde will take her though an Alice–in–Wonderland fall.
It is gossip that becomes the rabbit hole. The gossipers come in two forms, the world weary Lord Darlington (the elegant Gray Powell) who hints at her husband’s indiscretions in the hopes of becoming her rebound lover, and the Duchess of Berwick (the brilliant Corrine Koslo) chattering out poison and humorous proclamations like a scattered, imperious red queen.
Lady Windermere, who sits on the floor playing a doll sized piano, is much too big to be this innocent. Later, when the curtain closes and reopens ever so partially on her husband’s study (dark and foreboding with an over–sized book case and a forbidding desk), she is way too small, jumping to try to reach the books, crawling beneath the officious desk, seeking his bank book for evidence of betrayal .
The darkness of Wilde’s own life is well known . He was married with children but lost his heart to a male lover. Brutally tried by a puritanical society, he was jailed and ultimately set adrift in France, impecunious and unbefriended. This careful staging of shadow and light, between what society will sanction or what it will scorn, is most profound in the digs of Lord Darlington. This is a kind of underground lair where men over–drink and speak carelessly about their vices. Here every form of danger lies, and here our heroine flees. The brilliant performance of Kyle Blair, as Cecil Graham, a Wilde foil, helps us place the great writer in his time. When this play was first performed, Wilde was on the verge of dazzling fame, the grandiose fireworks before the fall.
Fireworks end an earlier scene, The first time the curtain opens fully, it reveals a glorious Monet sky above the stunning venue for Lady Windermere’s party. Social mores appear to be in place. But Lady Windermere is furious because her husband insists she admit Mrs. Erlynne (the femme fatale Tara Rosling) to her celebration. She, in a child–like way, threatens to attack the guest with her fan. Instead, as she formally greets the siren, her fan falls to the ground and, in a beautifully staged moment, she must decide whether or not to bend over to retrieve it. This she does in a slow agonizing way that turns her intended aggression into an apparent curtsy. She has let her enemy through the gate. The girl in her is crushed and some confused form of adulthood begins.
In the final scene, we see Lady Windermere’s face in the looking glass. Like Alice, after much commotion, she has crossed through. She knows the game now, and she won’t be found out. The stage encompasses both rooms where we began, but the white one is less bright and the study is less dark. Our good woman has the weapon she needed, not the fan, but the secret chambers of her heart.
Don’t miss this astounding production. V
LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN
Until Oct. 19
Festival Theatre @
10 Queen’s Parade,