Chichester Festival Theatre
Opened 6 May, 1997

When even one of the Festival Theatre's habitues amongst the audience remarks at the curtain call, "Well, that was very Chichester," one knows that the preceding two hours and more have not exactly broken new ground. Richard Cottrell's production of Lady Windermere's Fan looks opulent, sounds... well, loud... and challenges no preconceptions whatever.
The tone is established by Siri O'Neal's first aside in the opening minute: she moves to the front of the theatre's deeply thrust stage and does not so much intimate to the audience as orate at it. Throughout the play, O'Neal does her level best not to appear ingenuous, but fails; her near-hysteria at the beginning of Act Three, in the rooms of her extramarital suitor Lord Darlington, even drew the occasional isolated titter on press night.

Cottrell directs the emotional content of Wilde's play its comments that morality may not be as immutable as one believes squarely, broadly and for the most part superficially; when David Rintoul as Darlington delivers the classic line, "I can resist everything except temptation," he accompanies it with a gesture reminiscent of Pavarotti at the climax of an aria, a moment which encapsulates not only his over-poised, over-graceful performance but the greater part of the evening. Googie Withers enjoys her portrayal of the Duchess of Berwick, dropping to a booming baritone for her punchlines, but the most characteristic scene is Act Three's gathering of the gentlemen after a night at their club, as they self-consciously swap epigrams.

Thanks to Dynasty, Stephanie Beacham has built a fresh career as a femme fatale of a certain age, and her rendition of the scandalous Mrs Erlynne is no exception. Beacham delivers her lines in an affected, languid drawl somewhere between outdated stage performance and a bad impersonation of Katharine Hepburn. Even Hugh Durrant's stage design, with its diagonally slashed Doric columns, overstates the matter: during one ultraviolet-lit scene change, the plush upholstery glows luminous.

This is not a production which brings the play to life in any meaningful sense; it presents the surface of the work four-square without a hint of ever trying to penetrate any more deeply.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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