By Oscar Wilde. Director Jess Davis. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. 19 March – 7 May, 2022.
Reviewed : 19 March, 2022 (Opening Night)
Oscar Wilde’s witty criticisms of society still give us cause to reflect even while we smile, though the criticism he made of the society of the time in Lady Windermere’s Fan – namely the hurtful effect of gossip – is nothing compared to the scandalmongering perpetuated in social media today, and its wide audience far surpasses the elegant theatregoers of the Victorian era!
Elegance is synonymous with Wilde’s plays. It was the nobility he sought to unnerve in his plays – and the nobility meant the fashionable and well-heeled, who had time for ‘at homes’ and carriage rides in the park – and balls. They are ‘costume’ plays and this production, directed by Jess Davis, with costumes designed by Peter Henson, takes the audience back to the graceful gowns, elaborate hats – and waist coats and tails – of the late 19th century. The silk, lace and frills favoured by the stylish ladies of Wilde’s play, contrast with the sombre black and grey of the gentlemen, as they meet in Lord Windermere’s house on Carlton Terrace 130 years after the play was first performed.
People deport themselves a little more casually today than in the 1890s, and it’s always hard, especially for younger actors, to emulate the carriage and bearing of that time. Not so with more experienced performers. Liz Grindly as the Duchess of Berwick and Michela Noonan as Mrs Erlynne carry it off beautifully. With backs straight, necks arched, nimble steps, precise gestures – and clipped, clear enunciation – they epitomise the posture and posturing of the time.
Aimee Honour is a sweet, virtuous Lady Windermere, shocked by the apparent betrayal of her husband, played with sober earnestness by Kendall Drury. Sam Walter is the love-lorne Lord Darlington, and David Boyd is humorously ingratiating Lord Augustus Lorton.
On a set, designed by Tom Fahy and lit by Michael Schell, they and the other enthusiastic members of the Belgravia set, show how easily a scandal can arise – and how an old scandal can be concealed – by a society that thrived on idle chatter but also followed relatively strict code of conduct. Davis’s idea of using projected images of quotes from a manners ‘Manual’ during scene changes accentuated the ideals of the time, even though Wilde disparaged those ideals through the words of Mrs Erlynne … “Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they are better.”