High Society: Katherine Duncan-Jones on a Production of Wilde's Classic Which Rises above Shallow Realism. (Theatre)
Duncan-Jones, Katherine, New Statesman (1996)
Although presented as a luscious period piece in Peter Hall's production, Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) is surprisingly modern. We might think that it would be impossible to persuade a 21st-century audience to care about Mrs Erlynne's desperate desire to be readmitted to society -- in Wilde's parlance, the group of moneyed aristocrats within which men are encouraged to be amusingly "bad" while ladies are required to maintain unblemished reputations. But whether or not society still exists, in the Margaret Thatcher sense, versions of Wilde's certainly do. Ambitious Englishmen are as keen as ever to form themselves into mutually affirming clubs defined at the edges by others, often mature women, whom they conspicuously banish. This is especially so in politics and the media. For Mrs Erlynne, read Gwyneth Dunwoody, Elizabeth Filkin or Janet Street-Porter.
Wilde's earliest social comedy is wonderfully economical, well written and well plotted. Joely Richardson is a lovely, elegant, innocently snobbish Lady Windermere who seems also vulnerable and alone. She is too much in need of the mother she has never known to be able to function properly as a mother herself. Though eventually crucial in the denouement, her baby is confined to the wings. Wilde does not even tell us, as his contemporary J M Barrie surely would have done, whether Lady Windermere finds a moment, between tea and dinner, to look in on the nursery. But it is clear that her exquisitely furnished drawing room -- designed by John Gunter -- will never feel the touch of sticky fingers.
Act One belongs to Lady Windermere, and it's as well that the fascinating Mrs Erlynne is not seen until Act Two, for there is no doubt that, as soon as she appears, Vanessa Redgrave completely upstages her real-life daughter. …