Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

“A Woman of No Importance” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Dominic Dromgoole’s latest project, with his new company, Classic Spring, is a year of Oscar Wilde plays. It’s off to a fantastic start with this story of adultery and sexual inequality. Wilde, the Victorian radical, has a sharp eye on masculine privilege that feels depressingly topical.

Providing effective pathos is Eve Best as the wronged woman, Mrs Arbuthnot. It’s hard for modern ears to hear her self-excoriation. But Best sets up an underlying anger towards her reencountered seducer (impressively performed by Dominic Rowan) that thrills. Best and the whole company’s handling of the play’s plentiful melodrama is masterful – a few well-placed laughs help us over some crippling sincerity.

This play is serious. But this is Wilde, so the comedy is as good as any you could find – in his day or now. Leading the epigrams alongside Rowan is Emma Fielding as the archly aesthetic Mrs Allonby. And there’s a great little performance from Phoebe Fildes as a sophisticate in training. Leading the way are Eleanor Bron and Anne Reid as two aristocratic dowagers giving top-class performances. It takes a lot not to be controlled by Wilde’s comedy; both make the lines natural, while Reid’s suggestion of a little too much digestif in the third act is a cheeky move that gets a laugh with every line.

So far, this is strong actors making the most of a genius. More than enough reason to see the show. But Dromgoole has a programme of ideas driving his production that elevates this to one of the finest of revivals.

First is the idea of exploring the proscenium theatre that Wilde’s plays were written for and that the Vaudeville is such a gorgeous example of. Let’s celebrate this wonderful format. It leads to fantastic sets and costumes from Jonathan Fensom and sensitive lighting from Ben Ormerod. Scene changes include some songs and period numbers arranged by Jason Carr – now that’s entertainment. After years at Shakespeare’s Globe, Dromgoole is an expert at the potential of a period.

Dromgoole also knows how to make sure a play doesn’t get stuck in the past. In a revelatory move, he’s utilised a study of the play’s previous drafts. The assumption that Wilde would have been bolder had the theatre of his day allowed it is a point for discussion. But it’s a fun debate, and all-too- suitable for a figure whose legacy has been so often used (and abused). You have to know the text well to work out what’s gone on, and plenty of lines still feel old-fashioned, but the idea is brave and effective. Classic Spring has a winning formula set up for an exciting year. Get booking.

Until 30 December 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

 

 

“The Importance Of Being Earnest” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Adrian Noble’s high quality revival of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece has more to offer than its gender blind casting of David Suchet in the role of the indomitable Lady Bracknell. It has to be stressed that Suchet is brilliant and very much a star. Without those Poirot moustaches, he’s surprisingly convincing in drag. Did I detect a nod to his former role when Bracknell interviews a prospective groom for her daughter? Notes are taken in a book you can imagine the sleuth using for clues. But more importantly, Suchet has a playful coyness that brings more laughs to a character with no shortage of great lines. The ultimate snob, Lady Bracknell’s disgust at that infamous handbag is as we expect, but Suchet adds a repugnance to the location of Bayswater that should go down in theatre history.

Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest
Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon

Just as good as Suchet is the strong cast that Noble utilises to create a zippy production with just the right amount of irreverence towards a classic. The four young lovers do justice to the play, while adding contemporary touches. Michael Benz and Philip Cumbus play the bachelors, John and Algernon, with as many laddish touches as the text will allow. The scene of them fighting over muffins is daring – I fear for Cumbus choking one night – but pays off. Emily Barber does well to suggest how she might, as predicted, face the “tragedy” of becoming like her mother, Lady Bracknell, while Imogen Doel adds a quirky youthfulness to the role of Cecily that feels strikingly modern. This quartet, plus Suchet, live up to the freshness of Wilde’s script and are sure to please admirers of the play.

Until 7 November 2015

www.importanceofearnest.com

Photos by Alastair Muir

“The Judas Kiss” at Hampstead Theatre

David Hare’s 1998 play, The Judas Kiss, takes two pivotal moments in Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas: his refusal to flee to the continent before his arrest for ‘gross indecency’ and the couple’s final split in Naples. The story makes terrific drama. Under the expert hands of renowned Australian director Neil Armfield, this well-known tale is used to explore the emotions and motivations behind a great love story.

It’s not often that a casting director gets a mention in a review but Cara Beckinsale deserves it. Rupert Everett as Wilde seems so obviously right that it’s strange he hasn’t taken on the part before. His physical transformation is remarkable – the resemblance uncanny – and his intelligent and magnetic performance swings from brilliant dazzler to private thinker, aware that he has been “cast in a role”.

Freddie Fox brings his cheekbones and youth to the role of Lord Alfred Douglas, but he doesn’t just look the part. This ‘Bosie’ goes beyond the spoilt child – Fox gives his selfishness a pathological edge. The Judas Kiss is really a three-hander, with the part played by Robbie Ross in Wilde’s life given the place it deserves. Dismissed by Douglas as “third party”, this integral figure is poignantly portrayed by Cal MacAninch.

Ross’s presence is just another example of what a well-crafted play The Judas Kiss is. Taking on big themes, as Wilde believed an artist should, and arguably sneaking in a few more – issue of rights, freedom and a “crisis of silence” – that make Wilde’s plight feel contemporary, Wilde becomes more than a gay martyr or quotable figure. In Hare’s hands he is made human. This give The Judas Kiss the passion needed for great theatre.

Until 13 October 2012.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 13 September 2012 for The London Magazine

“An Ideal Husband” at the Vaudeville Theatre

We sometimes forget what a political writer Oscar Wilde was. An Ideal Husband is the story of a successful MP whose corruption comes back to haunt him. A crime he once committed, and upon which his fortune is based, is used to blackmail him in a play that is as much a comedy of morals as of manners.

This is a luxurious production. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s golden sets deserve the applause they receive, and are all the more impressive for not being slavishly historical. Lindsay Posner’s direction is similarly lavish, the pace is leisurely, so that we can fully savour Wilde’s delicious ironies.

Alexander Hanson and Rachael Stirling play the couple that faces ruin from the unravelling scandal. Both work well with the play’s occasional melodrama, and inject real emotion into their very Victorian marriage. Samantha Bond excels as, “that dreadful Mrs Cheveley, in a most lovely gown” who is, “as large as life and not nearly so natural”. Bond is fresh and deliciously wicked as this crinolined thief and blackmailer.

Elliot Cowan’s performance as the Viscount Goring is revelatory. Goring is the Wildean dandy we all expect but Cowan not only delivers his aphorisms admirably, he adds a depth to the character that includes a truly steely edge.

Both Goring and his fiancée Mabel, charmingly performed by Fiona Button, tackle Wilde’s epigrams with just the right amount of knowing glances, for some of them are silly. But one line resonates: “Always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it.” My advice? Get a ticket for this classy production as quickly as you can.

Until 26 February 2011

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 12 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“Salome” at the Hampstead Theatre

The press night for Headlong Theatre’s production of Salome was cleverly planned to coincide with the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist. It served to remind us that Oscar Wilde’s seldom performed play is a religious one. Primarily interesting in that the play shows us a very different side to a writer we all think we know, its director Jamie Lloyd embraces Wilde’s darker side and gives us a sinister, fascinating take on the biblical story.

It is uncomfortable viewing. John’s guards are animalistic in the extreme, with movement directed by Ann Yee, they prowl around the stage, quickly establishing an atmosphere of danger and distrust. They have reason to watch their backs. Not just because they fear the wild prophet, played by Seun Shote with an appropriate physicality, but because the court they work at is simply mad. Dripping with decadence, Con O’Neill’s Herod stumbles and spits his way around the stage, revoltingly pouring wine down his throat and over himself. He grabs any and every available piece of flesh – except for Salome.

Zawe Ashton’s Salome is a fascinating creature. Aware of her power, she toys with all the men on stage and revels in the danger. Occasional ineptness reminds us of her age. Jaye Griffiths is in fine form as her maligned mother Herodias. Appearing like a painted doll, her paranoia is at a constant fever pitch. Lloyd has clearly directed all the cast to mark Wilde’s constant warning to “look upon” others. The gaze communicates and increases desire – it has an uncanny power. Not a glance among the ensemble is wasted. The drama is unbearably tense and somewhat exhausting.

Sacrifices have been made to achieve a breakneck pace. Much of Wilde’s poetry seems lost. His text is flushed with colour yet Soutra Gilmour’s set is a dystopian playground and her costumes army fatigues. The symbolism in the play seems neglected – here everything is brutally direct. But Lloyd isn’t running a Sunday School. If events like these really ever happened they probably did so in an environment this crazed, with people this unbalanced. This production casts new light on the Bible story. That was probably Wilde’s aim in the first place.

Until 17 July 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Warner

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Importance of Being Earnest” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Director Irina Brown has said that she hopes her production of The Importance of being Earnest at Regent’s Park takes a fresh look at Wilde’s masterpiece.

Considering how well loved the work is, she may be in danger of offending but this risk is necessary.  When almost every epigram in the play seems to have been quoted on gift cards and the whole audience sits mouthing lines and nudging one another at what they recognise, something needs to be done.

Brown’s most notable effort is to make the play more physical.  With language as wonderful as Wilde’s it is all too easy to make his play static.  Instead, we have a slapstick fight between Dominic Tighe’s Algernon and Ryan Kiggell’s Jack over a cigarette case, their verbal jousting is matched a great physicality as they chase each other around.

Jo Herbert’s Gwendolen seems metallic in a wonderful costume that looks deliberately difficult to move in. Lucy Briggs Owen conveys a naïve sexuality in Cecily and is happy to flounce down on the ground when commanded to sit or whenever it suits her.

Movement also comes from the servants in the piece. Not only do we have both a memorable Lane and Merriman but also a cast of silent servants.  Like the audience, they watch and listen and in doing so bring us closer to the action, eavesdropping and acting out their own dramas as they respond to events or during an artful scene change.

In Brown’s efforts to make the play entertaining to the eye as well as the ear, she is aided by wonderful design from Kevin Knight. The actors have a great space to (quite literally) play in.  They have pretend flowers to pick, a miniature bridge to run up and down and even a dolls’ house to hide in.  A magnificent ramp might be treacherous in bad weather but, reminiscent of the old penguin house at London Zoo, it is a great comic touch.

Yet this is not just a question of our viewing the cast as if they were animals in a zoo.  As the production opens, a huge mirrored surface reflects the audience also.  The ensemble’s first action is to view the crowd.  Using glasses, binoculars and telescopes for a brief moment and taking advantage of the light conditions in an open-air theatre – we are on display.

Throughout the first act pretty much everyone checks themselves in this mirror, even if only to confirm their superiority – that everything is as it should be – of course, we cannot be sure that they also aren’t looking at us as well. Brown opens up this possibility along with many others.  This production makes us think about the class system at work within the play raises those eternal issues between the sexes.

It is surely telling that Cecily hides in her dolls’ house when her future is being discussed.  Most importantly, in emphasising Wilde’s observation of society and human nature, the source of his comedy is retained and enhanced.

All the laughs are still there, we just get to hear the jokes afresh.

Until 3 July 2009

www.openairtheatre.com

Written 10 July 2009 for The London Magazine