JOYCE MCMILLAN on LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 25.7.13.
4 stars ****
ANOTHER EVENING AT Pitlochry, another set of gorgeous period costumes, worn by actors deploying the most aristocratic Mayfair accents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet it’s always unwise to judge a theatrical book by its cover; and for a demonstration of how an elaborate costume drama can still be made to grip the audience’s attention from the outset, and to deliver a fierce and strangely contemporary theatrical punch, there’s no better show in this year’s Pitlochry season than Richard Baron’s lucid and compelling new production of Oscar Wilde’s glittering 1892 comedy, Lady Windermere’s Fan.
In tone, the play is more of a melodrama than a comedy, although it contains some of Wilde’s most famous one-liners, with which the Pitlochry audience cheerfully joins in. At heart, though, the story is about motherhood, and about the supposed contrast between good and motherly women like the lovely young Lady Windermere, and “bad” women like the scandalous Mrs. Erlynne, who has recently arrived in London, and seems to be making heavy demands both on Lord Windermere’s attention, and on his cheque-book.
Yet Mrs. Erlynne is not what she seems; and as young Lady Windermere learns that virtue and vice are much less absolute qualities than she thought, Wilde offers us some strikingly radical views on what a good mother might look like, and how much obedience women really owe to a social system that often serves them so ill. The beautiful Jessica Guise is in stunning and thoughtful form as the strait-laced young Lady Windermere; Basienka Blake is often dazzling as a brilliant, glamorous, slightly world-weary Mrs. Erlynne. And Adrian Rees’s wildly-painted sets are a joy to look at; a fierce reminder of the sentimental cult of motherhood that surrounded women in late Victorian England, and that – as this week’s events have made clear – is still with us today, in some ways more powerful than ever.