Imagine a society composed entirely of individuals who react to a mis-placed handkerchief with the same fantastical extremity of Othello. Swap out the handkerchief for a fan, and you have the setting of Wilde’s early triumph, Lady Windermere’s Fan, now receiving an electric new production at the Shaw Festival of Niagara’s main stage.
This is Wilde poised at the moment of transition from tragedy from comedy, and from success as a raconteur and critic to success as an artist. The world of the play is a society in which the slightest social slip can result in infamy and ostracism; where to invite the wrong person to a party is a mortal sin; and to be found in a man’s home unchaperoned (if you’re a woman – all these strictures apply only to women) no different from being caught in flagrante. No, not an American high school; the aristocracy of Edwardian England.
But this isn’t a cream puff of a play, not even on the surface. Here, near the beginning of his career, Wilde managed to capture the spirit of the late Shakespearean romances, of A Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, deep pain that, miraculously, is completely forgiven, though it can never really be forgotten. Like those plays, the plot depends on contrivances outlandish outside of fairy stories. And, here as there, we’re too busy crying tears of joy and pity to care how they were extracted.
The plot is swiftly sprung. Lady Windermere is a young wife and mother, severe in her morals but, at least as played by the fresh and vital Marla McLean, warm in her manners from the first in a way that lets us know there is more potential in this woman than the cramped text of her early speeches would suggest. Though married, she has an admirer whom she keeps at bay, but still at hand: Lord Darlington (a simmering Gray Powell), who admits to posing as a “bad” fellow, but who thinks (and also tells Lady Windermere) that he’s not nearly so bad as some men he knows who deceive their wives.
Darlington at first appears to be a Wilde stand-in, the charming man who appears wicked but is actually good. As it turns out, it’s the other way around. Darlington is posing as a bad sort in the Wildean mode, but that’s a tissue thin disguise covering something much worse – a romantic so besotted with his own affections that he completely loses sight of the real needs and interests of their object. One of the minor delights of this production is watching Powell reveal himself to be this, and do so in such a way that we know he never realizes this is what he is, believes himself, to the last, to be the only true lover in England. But this is much later, after the interval.
Returning to the where we left off: from her next visitor, the Dutchess of Berwick (Corrine Koslo, auditioning for Lady Bracknell), Lady Windermere learns that her husband, whom she loved and admired for his apparent moral perfection, is one of these deceivers to whom Darlington alluded. Lady Windermere cannot believe it, but cannot bring herself to disbelieve either, and ransacks her husband’s study for proof. She quickly finds a bankbook, wherein are recorded a number of transactions with a Mrs. Erlynne – the very woman she was warned about. She confronts her husband (a very tall, blonde and handsome – but rather remote – Martin Happer) – and to her shock, far from repenting, her husband demands that she, Lady Windermere, invite Mrs. Erlynne to the ball being thrown that evening in honor of her birthday. It seems the woman made some mistakes in her youth, and has been rejected by society, but is trying to get back in, and Lord Windermere intends to help her by being the first “good” family to receive her. When his wife refuses to do this courtesy, he invites Mrs. Erlynne himself, and Lady Windermere threatens to receive her with a slap across the face with her fan, a birthday present from the husband she no longer trusts.
She doesn’t do this, but the party goes hard with her. It gets more difficult still when Darlington confesses his love for her, and begs her to run away with him. She refuses at first, but when it becomes plain that in her new life Mrs. Erlynne will be constantly in her eye, she writes a hasty letter telling her husband she’s run off with Darlington. As she leaves, we see Mrs. Erlynne at a tête-à-tête with Lord Windermere. Not only is it quite plain that there is no real affection between them, she appears to be blackmailing him for a large annual income, and for help in snagging Lord Augustus Lorton (the perfectly delightful Jim Mezon) for a husband. But just as we’re sure she is quite the wicked woman Lady Windermere thought, though not in quite the way she feared, Mrs. Erlynne finds the letter before Lord Windermere does. She reads it, blanches, cries aloud about history tragically repeating itself, and races off – to save Lady Windermere from her rash decision.
That’s where the interval falls. There’s much of the best to come, including a mordantly funny late-light drunken scene at Darlington’s (whose rooms look like they were decorated by Renfield) where Lady Windermere, in what must be an allusion to (and inversion of) the handkerchief bit in Othello, loses her fan, only for Mrs. Erlynne to retrieve it. But I won’t detail the entirety of the plot; it’s rather fun to spend the interval speculating what precisely is the hold Mrs. Erlynne has on Lord Windermere and how that relates to Mrs. Erlynne’s sudden and unexpected tenderness for his wife. These, though, are the outlandish contrivances of which I spoke earlier, and they are not the meat of the matter but the china on which it is served.
That meat is the transformation of not just one heart, but a whole series. First to change is Mrs. Erlynne, who risks everything she worked for – indeed, more, because in this moment she learns just how much more she has to lose – to save a woman she barely knows from a folly she knows only too well. That sudden transformation happens in front of the audience, and it is to the great benefit of this production that they have an actor of Tara Rosling’s caliber to carry it off. From her first appearance, her beauty is entrancing, and her character plainly as sinuous as her form. But her shock on reading the letter is entirely genuine, and later, when she resumes her original persona, we both see the difference and quite readily believe that nobody else will if she doesn’t want them to.
Mrs. Erlynne changes because of a hidden truth that she knows. That’s very Greek, and also very true to Shakespearean romance, where revelation, recognition and repentance go hand in hand. The mark of Wilde is that the hearts of Lady Windermere, and, to a lesser extent, her husband, are changed not by revelation from the past, but by action in the present – action that never fully reveals itself, indeed, depends for its efficacy on the preservation of a secret. Forgiveness, for Wilde, doesn’t require knowing the whole truth, but seeing the sinner before you as a whole person.
There are a number of delights along the way to this very moving conclusion, particularly the comic turns from Mezon’s Lord Augustus and Koslo’s Dutchess, along with another Wilde stand-in, Cecil Graham, played by Kyle Blair as screaming Lord Byron. But the most delightful aspect of the production is the design. The sets are like paintings out of Whistler or Sargent – the same muted palate, but also the same willingness to be constructively vague about the details, so that period is evoked with just a touch here or there, rather than exhaustively exhumed.
And the changes between scenes are effected by means of black curtains that do not fall, but telescope, a classic cinematic effect that concentrates our eyes on a particular object, and holds our hearts on a moment of emotion, rather than squashing it as a normal curtain drop would. During lengthier scene changes, black and white images from Cassat, Degas, Latrec and other period artists appear against the black, accompanied at times by Wildean epigrams – they felt like title cards, again connecting to the early days of cinema.
Director Peter Hinton and set designer Teresa Przybylski both deserve the highest possible praise, as does everyone involved in this profoundly moving and visually stunning production.
Lady Windermere’s Fan plays at the Shaw Festival of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Festival Theatre through October 19th.