Oscar Wilde is renowned for his comedies of manners which observe and satirise the upper class lifestyle and strict etiquette of Victorian society. The play was first staged to great critical acclaim in 1892, an era which saw the first wave of feminism and the rise of the New Woman.
Lady Margaret Windermere is an attractive young woman who has just reached her coming of age. Her husband has given her an ornate fan for her birthday which will be celebrated that evening with a lavish Ball.
We learn that they have been married for two years and have a young son. (Neatly echoing the Royal news on 22nd July of Kate and Wills and their baby boy!).
But Margaret has an admirer, Lord Darlington, who visits her that afternoon to warn her about her husband’s apparent affair with a lady called Mrs Erlynne. Darlington expresses his love for Margaret and implores her to leave the unfaithful Lord Windermere.
Jessica Guise perfectly captures Margaret’s sensitive good nature as well as a streak of strong mindedness, while Simon Donaldson plays the seductive Darlington with roguish charm.
Like a contemporary TV soap opera, wife then accuses husband of infidelity, which he adamantly denies with a "You don't understand!" kind of retort. After a blazing argument, he demands that Mrs Erlynne is invited to Margaret’s party that evening, much against her wishes.
Unfortunately, Alex Scott Fairley seems too young and inexperienced, lacking both the grandeur and grace in his status as a Lord, as well as a forceful personality for this “game of marriage”.
The extravagantly-dressed guests begin to arrive for the Ball, led by the buxom Duchess of Berwick in a bright sunflower-yellow gown, who keeps a tight rein over her taciturn daughter Lady Agatha.
With nothing to say except “Yes Mama”, Karen Fishwick cleverly portrays Agatha's fiery spirit, viewing all the handsome men as a means of escape from her mother.
She won’t get far with Mr Dumby, however, who wanders about proudly wearing a Wildean green carnation in his button hole, eyeing up any suitable talent.
And then making her bold entrance comes Mrs Erlynne, the, reputedly, scarlet woman in a tightly bodiced red dress. Almost speechless with rage, all Margaret can do is flick her fan and ignore this unwelcome guest, who becomes the centre of gossiping attention.
At the party Lord Darlington again tries to persuade her to leave home – but what should she do.? Most poignantly, the large painted backdrop is The Cradle, by Berthe Morisot, reminding us of Margaret’s role as wife and mother.
The fan in the title is also neatly symbolic – an image of feminine modesty, a mask over the mouth perhaps hiding a flirting secret smile. This birthday present from Lord Windermere also refers to Margaret’s beloved “fan” Lord Darlington.
The scenario is similar to that of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House which ends when Nora decides to leave her husband and children. The first production in London in 1889 was seen as outrageous by public and critics for promoting feminist propaganda.
Again, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde understands the plight of women within the constraints of married life, implying the right for sexual equality for all.
As the play illustrates with wicked humour, the wealthy leisured elite of London society has little to do but gossip about their friends. The gentlemen drink whisky and smoke cigars at their private Club while the ladies arrange vases of flowers and have afternoon tea parties.
This dramatic, well-structured play keeps the audience guessing about who is telling the truth, the identity of Mrs Erlynne and what kind of scandals will be revealed behind the drawing room curtains.
The accomplished cast is directed with artistic vision, mood and movement, with elegant design and dress capturing the period style with a touch of 1890s romantic decadence.
In repertoire until 18 October, 2013.
Recommendation for a pre-theatre supper.
The Old Mill Inn - 10 minute walk to the theatre.