‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’

Our little coastal town of Hastings is not known for its cultural events. A pleasant marina and a mangrove board walk around the bay are its main attractions. It has three supermarkets and a Kmart, a fast-food intersection that is always busy, a selection of cafes and restaurants, multiple fish and chip shops and countless massage shops and nail salons. What more could we want? It’s actually what I like about this little resort town on the side of the Peninsula that is often forgotten. No impossible crowds in summer; always a parking spot in the main street.

But an occasional performance or art show is very welcome for the culture-starved residents who have carved out a niche in this gentle area – sometimes described beautifully and accurately in Garry Disher’s crime novels.

So when a Writers’ Club mate toured the Peninsula directing an Oscar Wilde play and ended in Hastings, I had to go – for myself and for Jonty. Besides, it was a three minute drive down the street! I also took my granddaughter, who had never been to live theatre before. With memories of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, I expected this play to be a humorous satire. It turned out to be darker.

‘Lady Windermere’s Fan is a comedy of manners by Osca Wilde, set in the 1890s in London. The play revolves around Lady Windermere’s jealousy over her husband’s apparent interest in Mrs Erlynne, a mysterious older woman. When rumours surface about Lord Windermere’s payments to Mrs Erlynne, Lady Windermere confronts him, leading to a complex web of secrets, morality and second chances.

The Hastings Hall is a surprisingly pleasant venue. In the chilly burst of near freezing temperatures we were experiencing, I was grateful to feel a warm glow from the heaters as we entered. The stage was empty! Chairs had been set up in the round in the main part of the hall, with a floor rug and furniture in the centre. With my husband, granddaughter and a friend, we settled in for what was quite a long performance.

My initial impression was that I felt involved in the action as the characters entered the corner right next to me and I pulled my feet in out of the way. They made great use of the space, using all four corners and sides with impressive movement and choreography. In the party scenes, we felt present at the event, mixing with the colourful characters. Some had very resonant voices and commanded the whole space; others like Mrs Erlynne, had quieter voices that were absorbed into the high ceiling, but made me lean in to keep up with the story.

The characters were so well cast and provided what humour the play has. An intimidating Lord Darlington, both by size and voice; a flittery Agatha with her constant ‘Yes, Mama’; the ever-present clown figure of a contemporary style Parker, the servant. The famous fan was there from the beginning and seemed to symbolise the way the feelings and understandings (or misunderstandings) moved around each scene, depending on who had the feathery, fluffy fan.

I was impressed with the extensive memory work that Lady Windermere had done to be across all her lines for the whole two and a half hours; she must be exhausted after each performance from speaking, shouting and crying as the dramas of suspected infidelity unfolded. Plays have a history of contrivance driving plot and this play is no exception. The audience was groaning with anticipation until the secret was revealed, as we had known it for a while. I think that is how playwrights draw us in, as we know more than the characters and identify like somewhat omniscient narrators.

Lord Windermere was impressively huffy and ingenuous, and I felt I wanted to shake him and sort out the whole misunderstanding. He valiantly bore the aspersions cast on his character as a gallant, chauvinistic, old world, aristocratic male would.

As for the mischievous Duchess of Berwick – there is always a troublemaker like her somewhere, played so convincingly in this performance.

After the long build up of misunderstandings and flip-flopping of emotions and trust, the play ended suddenly without full resolution, and as my granddaughter commented, raised a number of questions about morality. Who is good and who is bad? And is anyone bad capable of doing good or vice versa? Like all well-crafted plays, this one is about human nature and its foibles, played out in the most intimate of relationships.

It tackles the ambiguity of morality and the slipperiness of language, both of which undermine trust. It is a satire that deals with hypocrisy, shallowness and a rigid society which forces gender roles. Perhaps the context has changed but there are some universal truths in the play, along with warnings about making judgements and taking things and people at face value. It causes the audience to take a vow against shallowness and presumption, and to live for authenticity, loyalty and mutual understanding. The writer in me began to toss around some thoughts about how to write a play, which is the challenging form of writing completely in dialogue.

Well done Morning Peninsula Theatre Company and Director Jonty Reason. Please come back to Hastings soon!

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