Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde

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BBC Radio 7, 13 December 2010
Another tale of innocence transmuted into experience through melodrama. Mrs. Erlynne (Penelope Keith) turned out to a blackmailer but operating for the best intentions, as she ends up trying to prevent her illegitimate daughter Lady Darlington (Joely Richardson) from committing the same folly that Mrs. Erlynne herself committed two decades previously - abandoning her husband and condemning herself to a life of perpetual isolation. The story has the same feel as An Ideal Husband, focusing on the importance of tolerance in marriage while satirizing the English aristocracy for their hypocrisies, particularly where manners are concerned.
In David Johnson's production Lady Windermere's Fan critiqued late Victorian rationalism, that presupposed that the world was easily categorized into strict gender divisions, each with their own behavioural rituals. The significance of such rituals - both in public and in private - meant that the characters could only disclose their real thoughts through asides; to do otherwise would have been social suicide. Lady Windermere, her husband (Gary Bond), Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Darlington (Edward Fox) were particularly fond of this strategy - even though many of their surmises about their fellow-characters were wrong. But perhaps this was inevitable in a world of surface, where people deliberately tried not to understand each other.
Johnson deliberately cast against type. Keith's Mrs. Erlynne was very different from the kind of characters the actress played on television. Rather than trying to sustain social rituals, she critiqued them. As the production unfolded, however, so Mrs. Erlynne's character changed, as she understood the importance of maintaining such rituals to save Lady Windermere's marriage. Fox's Lord Darlington initially seemed like James Harthouse, the cad the actor so memorably played in the famous television adaptation of Hard Times. As time passed, however, so Darlington's weaknesses emerged. He deliberately tried to preserve a facade of wickedness, simply to maintain his own sense of self-worth. However he revealed a good side to his nature; he deliberately tried to offer Lady Windermere an alternative to her sterile life of London society. The fact that she refused him had more to do with her own inhibitions rather than with Darlington's character. In the long speech where Darlington declared his love for her, Fox tended towards the over-elaborate, speaking in pronounced cadences, but at least it was a true expression of his feelings in a world where honesty was held in little esteem.
The production ended predictably with the Windermeres brought together and Mrs. Erlynne consigned once more to the margins of society. It seemed that Victorian morality had once again emerged triumphant, but at least this production showed what possibilities lurked underneath - particularly through Darlington - if people actually took the trouble to take heed of them.

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