LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN
Salisbury Playhouse
Opened 13 September, 1999

I recently watched a well-known director explain, with the help of a 20-year-old videotape of one of his productions, what he maintains is wrong with most young British actors. In the two-handed scene he screened, it was plain that the male actor who had come up through the old weekly repertory system had an arsenal of personal stagecraft with which he could open up his performance; in contrast, his female colleague, a more recent product of drama school, kept her face and body close to his and her eyes locked upon him. As the director pointed out, this actress's pseudo-naturalistic performance looks fine on camera, but in a theatre it shuts out virtually the entire audience.

During Jennie Darnell's Salisbury production of Lady Windermere's Fan, I could not get this lesson out of my head. The predominantly young cast keep playing scenes to each other, without letting the rest of us in. Only Celia Nelson as Mrs Erlynne turns her performance at all outward, and this is part of her characterisation as the brazen woman disapproved of in polite society; consequently, when Mrs Erlynne finds to her surprise that she has a heart, and begins to perform selfless acts to save the marriage of Lord Windermere and her unknowing daughter, Nelson's performance shrinks back into the same muted register as those around her. And, as if it needed to be said, drawing-room naturalism does not suit Wilde's writing.

A skilled and sensitive director would try to open up the stage picture to the audience; Darnell collapses it still further. She has blocked virtually all exchanges on the horizontal even the supposedly extravagant whirl of the ball scene in Act Two is reduced to a succession of flat chats. By the interval I, sitting slightly to one side, had yet to see the full faces of a couple of the cast. Two of the most crucial and intimate duologues are played on a chaise longue, so that not only are the actors scant inches from each other, but one of them is cutting the entire scene off from a third of the audience with his or her back. Someone ought to point out to Darnell, too, that the Salisbury Playhouse actually has a thrust stage; she stubbornly keeps her actors back where a proscenium arch would be, leaving the front half of the stage all but unused and exacerbating still further the flat, cold and distant character of the evening. "People are either charming or tedious," remarks the raffish Lord Darlington; "I take the side of the charming." Unfortunately, the production is solidly pro-tedium.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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