Director Schermann has delivered a finely timed and energetic production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. It shows that Oscar Wilde can be blended with Commedia dell’arte to advantage. The hard working ensemble class shows great versatility and attention to detail.
It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is a classic from the plays of Oscar Wilde. It has been produced frequently since it’s London premier in 1892. This production is a new adaptation by Venetia Twigg. It is currently being presented at the Chelsea Theatre.
As ever when a classic play is adapted the question is: What does this production bring that offers new insights? Twigg is the founder of the production company Theatrical Niche Ltd and has adapted Lady Windermere’s Fan in a meaningful and clever and entertaining way but without producing anything fundamentally new.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is a comedy of manners, a form that depicts and often satirizes the manners and affectations of contemporary society. The style is characterised by witty dialogue with some farce. The comedy lies behind the use of manners as a mask to behaviour. Twigg’s adaptation has overlaid the figurative masks from the comedy of manners with the physical masks of Commedia dell’arte. It works. The physical comedy and stereotypes of one reinforce the word driven pictures of the other in a symbiotic relationship.
Twigg has also engineered that the original fifteen characters that Wilde used to tell his story are whittled down to four players. Each of the actors plays several roles and still some roles have been cut entirely or melded with others. The result is a sparkling rendition of the bones of the story with many of the essential quotes from the play.
With her cast, Pamela Schermann, the director, has explored this juxtaposition of styles and the notion of merging from behind the mask. There is a point at which Lady Windermere is forced to drop her old ‘mask’ whilst her husband and the mother she didn’t know she had continued to hide behind their own.
Working with Schermann is movement director Sheri Saad who was charged with adding the distinctive Commedia dell’arte movements to that of Wilde’s comedy. These touches, most evident in character of Parker, add a touch of pantomime to the production. This alternatively baffles and amuses the audience but also detracts from the narrative.
The hard working ensemble class shows great versatility and attention to detail. Changes of character are shown with slight changes of costume and masks. As in the traditional Commedia dell’arte, the love interests of the piece do not wear masks. These physical changes as well as changes in physicality are enough to carry the audience along.
In the title role, Venetia Twigg breathes life into all the innovations of her adaptation. Twigg sparkles and fires as Lady Windermere, bringing youth and truth to the role. She shows her versatility by doubling as Cecil Graham.
Alice Knapton plays both of the other significant female roles. Beginning as the older Duchess of Berwick, with mask, Knapton is upright and delivers the one-liners with zing. Then Knapton loses the mask and the cape and dons an oversized red wig for the scarlet woman, Mrs Erlynne. Knapton is also strong in this role whilst softening just enough to be believed in motherly mode.
Lord Windermere is played by Tim Atkinson and shows his serious upstanding side. It is a wonderful contrast to the opening of the show when the clowning antics of his Parker characterization set the tone of things to come. Atkinson also gives a restrained and exquisite Lady Plymdale without the support of drag of any kind.
The role of the would-be lover, Lord Darlington, is suavely played by Bryan Moriarty. His scenes with Twigg as Lady Windermereare highly choreographed and move with energy. Moriarty contrasts the young man with the older roles of Lord Augustus and Dumby.
The set, designed by Amanda Mascarenhas, is very neatly devised to be changed with only minor scene changes. The cast are choreographed, sometimes overly so, to effect changes. The more major move to Lord Darlington’s home for the third scene is achieved in the interval with the simple addition of gilt picture frames, new furniture and a false fireplace.
Similarly economic for simplicity of the changes is the costume plot. Alice Sillett designed both costumes and masks.
What would it have looked like though if the concepts of Commedia dell’arte underpinned the telling of Lady Windermere’s Fan rather than enveloping it?