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Toby Young
Saturday 2nd March 2002

Lady Windermere's Fan / Life After George

The Spectator - 2nd March 2002

One of the most noticeable aspects of contemporary British theatre is that producers and directors have become horribly media savvy. In deciding what plays to put on, and how to interpret those that they do, their principal concern is what's likely to generate publicity. In their eyes, this is the only sure-fire way to guarantee a hit. Thus, the poor, West End theatregoer is forced to choose between seeing a "challenging" new play, ie one that features copious nudity and lewd homosexual acts, or a "controversial" interpretation of an old one, ie one that features copious nudity and lewd homosexual acts. Can this really be in the long-term interests of the British stage? It's the theatrical equivalent of Tony Blair being obsessed with his own re-election at the expense of the national interest.

One trick that's becoming ever more popular with directors is "stunt casting". By this I mean casting a particular actor or actress because the director knows he or she will generate reams of column inches rather than because they happen to be the best person for the part. Peter Hall, the director of Lady Windermere's Fan, is guilty of this twice over. Firstly, he's chosen Pamela Gibson for the role of Lady Jedburgh, an 86-year-old actress who, as anyone who's read a newspaper in the past fortnight will know, hasn't appeared on the stage for 56 years. Secondly, and more importantly, he's cast Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson as Mrs Erlynne and Lady Windermere, two characters who happen to be mother and daughter. Judging from the amount of publicity it's received, Peter Hall probably thinks this was a masterstroke, but would Richardson have landed the part if she hadn't been Redgrave's daughter? On the strength of the performance I saw last Saturday night, I doubt it.

She's not staggeringly bad, but she seems awkward and self-conscious, not at all at home in the role. Admittedly, the part is poorly written--Lady Windermere is supposed to be a goody two-shoes one minute, then a scarlet woman the next--and it's difficult to imagine any actress making much sense of her. But Richardson gives a strangely wooden performance. I daresay she's scared rigid by the prospect of being upstaged by her own mother every evening. Indeed, the pairing of a celebrated theatrical legend--still handsome after all these years, but getting a bit long in the tooth--and her young whippersnapper of a daughter is the stuff of an explosive play in its own right: All About Eve meets King Lear.

Presumably, the reason Peter Hall has had to resort to these casting stunts is in order to disguise the fact that Lady Windermere's Fan is a pretty mediocre play. As a fan of Wilde's, I was shocked by just how slight it is. It's the source of some of his best-known epigrams, and some of the dialogue certainly sparkles, but as a piece of drama it barely manages to hold your attention. None of the characters are properly individuated--they all sound exactly like Oscar Wilde--and even those that stand out, like the Duchess of Berwick (Googie Withers), behave with maddening inconsistency. Thematically, the play is so trite it almost succeeds in making you sympathise with the priggish society types it holds up to ridicule. At one point Lord Darlington (Jack Davenport) says: "It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." Wilde felt exactly the same way about art and, by that standard, Lady Windermere's Fax is a failure. I'm afraid I found the whole experience, all two hours and twenty minutes of it, extremely tedious.

Life After George, which recently opened at the Duchess, is an altogether superior play. It's a heartfelt valentine by an Australian playwright called Hannie Rayson to the kind of left-wing academic that Malcolm Bradbury lampooned so mercilessly in The History Man. What's so impressive is that it doesn't stint on portraying the working-class hero of the title--a promiscuous history professor played by Stephen Dillane--as a complete shit. He betrays his wives, seduces his students and neglects his children, yet Rayson somehow manages to make him quite appealing. Perhaps that's because the thing he feels most passionate about is the importance of a liberal education as defined by John Henry Newman and that's something he has in common with all right-minded people. It's hard not to sympathise when he's railing against his ex-wife who's busy turning his beloved university into a kind of glorified vocational training centre. We should all rage with such gusto against the dying of the light.

Structurally, Life After George is a tad over-ambitious. It begins with George's funeral and the story of his life is told entirely in short, ten-minute flashbacks. The main shortcoming of this technique is that the scenes are so brief the play has difficultly building up any dramatic momentum and the climax, when it comes, doesn't pack much of a punch. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully polished production of a well-written play and a timely reminder of the virtues of the old left.

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