OSCAR’S BACK! IN THE VERY WEEK OF HIS BIRTHDAY…
A theatrical phenomenon of the 20th century is that some of the most perceptive parts for women were written by gay men: Tennessee Williams, RattiganM Noel Coward; Alan Bennett kindly, Joe Orton cruelly. And, in this case, Oscar Wilde. Because of The Importance Of Being Earnest with its demurely comic Gwendolen and Cicely and absurd Prism, we can forget that he had a savage anger about social justice for women: powerful unease about the double sexual standard and a bracing admiration for tough, outspoken American womanhood. His was, remember, the time when squads of wealthy US girls like Jennie Churchill were coming over and improving our aristocratic breeding-stock no end.
Of all the plays this is the most melodramatically and explicitly angry: at its heart is the long-wronged, virtuously hiding Mrs Arbuthnot, who finds out at a brittle social house-party that her illegitimate son Gerald has met her faithless lover – now titled and powerful – and been taken on as his secretary. There are terrific, and unfashionable, set-pieces: in among the excellent and familiar epigrams come long speeches of great earnestness both in favour of ‘virtue’ and against it.
But it bounces along, director Dominic Dromgoole allowing absurdity (borderline clowning at times) to keep the mood moving. The casting is wonderful: Eleanor Bron ,as arch as her own eyebrows, expresses aged aristocratic complacency and a throttling dominance of her husband. Anne Reid exudes daffy benevolence , and both senior ladies have split-second comic timing, and can throw lines away so that they explode unexpectedly a second later, and we guffaw). Harry Lister Smith is a sweetly tousled, eager Etonian Gerald, Emma Fielding the cynical Mrs Allonby, Crystal Clarke the priggish American reformer who comes good in the end.
Dominic Rowan makes a convincing coxcomb as the seducer. Gorgeous nonsensical cameos are added by William Gaunt’s senile Archdeacon, William Mannering as a drunk lordling, and Phoebe Fildes as poor dim young Lady Stutfield. But at its heart is Eve Best: mournful and troubled in black velvet, hair tumbling, a humble church-mouse amid the quipping brittle socialites. Her wronged Mrs Arbuthnot is the emotional and moral core of the play, and her sincerity carries the melodramatic scenes – no small feat – to just within the bounds of modern tolerance.
As many don’t know the plot, no spoilers. But I will signal to you the production’s grand and suitable joke. Anne Reid, benignly smiling as our stately hostess, turns out to have a fabulous knack for singing the most sentimental and minatory of Victorian parlour songs, trilling thrillingly in a character so extreme that I thought my late and shameless Granny was back to haunt me . She does three unexpected entr’acte moments, so that the three sumptuous sets (by Jonathan Fensom) can be changed in impressive silence as she emerges through the blue velvet curtains with her staff – and Ms Fildes – on fiddle, clarinet and guitars. Thus Reid belts out emotional renderings of “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother” and The Gypsy’s Warning, and we melt and cheer. Give that woman an album, now! These appearances, nicely introduced by her butler as if we were guests at the same social weekend, betray that Dominic Dromgoole, late of the warm and larky Shakespeare’s Globe, does not wish entirely to dispense with its spirit cosy inclusivity and confine his casts entirely behind a fourth wall.
Actually, talking of that, here’s a nice irony. This week Nicholas Hytner opens his new theatre, The Bridge, and you can hear him on Radio 4 musing on how the Victorian proscenium theatre, a gilded picture-frame, was ideal for plays up to 1950 but is problematic now. (R4 PLANKS AND A PASSION, 1130 tues 17th). While at the same moment Dominic Dromgoole – late of the Globe – begins his Classic Spring series by demonstrating, in this first Wilde revival, precisely how they did work for those plays and audiences.
But some things linger on for centuries. In this Harvey Weinstein week, there was not a little topicality in the theme of women being sexually shamed and hiding while men get away with it, “Women are pictures, men are problems” scoffs Lord Illingworth. His real nastiness emerges through the charm, just as the real pain of the second act gives a sharp sour jangle to the familiar epigrams. Wilde didn’t only use his teeth to smile.
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