As Classic Spring’s year-long Oscar Wilde season comes to a close, its timely to reflect on what it has achieved. Every theatre describes its forthcoming programme as a season, loosely tying together the varied collection of plays it will present in a 4-6 month period, releasing tickets for them all simultaneously. Here, though, a season refers to the external take-over of a theatre building by a Company formed specifically around a particular individual or to celebrate the work of one writer – as the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Classic Spring have done. Aside from its commercial purpose to attract as many patrons as possible, has London’s second major theatre season in three years really added anything to our perception of Oscar Wilde and his work?
This time last year Dominic Dromgoole’s newly-formed Company was preparing for its opening show – A Woman of No Importance – and promising that the programme would reposition Wilde in the theatre landscape, allowing us to view his writing and contribution with fresh eyes. With the rather lacklustre and ill-conceived version of The Importance of Being Earnest showered with largely 2* reviews and acres of disappointment, has Dromgoole failed where Branagh arguably succeeded? And what should a successful theatre season actually look like?
Play Selection is Crucial
With only four or five available spots each limited to an 8-10 week run, there are three important criteria for deciding which productions to include in the season. First is artistic value, the second commercial viability and the third variety. Classic Spring’s choices, including the two plays mentioned above along with Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband easily demonstrated the value of Wilde’s work, presenting his best-loved plays which guaranteed a healthy box-office return. Rarely off stage, Wilde has audiences flocking to the West End most years, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser each time.
Yet, with a season dedicated to one writer, predominantly working in one genre, variety is more difficult to achieve through the selection of work – how the forthcoming Pinter season manages this will be an interesting point of comparison. Branagh’s season could more easily offer a broad selection just by having a much wider pool of possible material, but it shrewdly combined the classics with modern drama, comedy and tragedy across the run. Yet, both seasons within their own confines gave dedicated audiences the chance to see work they would know well alongside more unusual or less-frequently performed pieces. Branagh’s curveball was the hilarious farce The Painkiller, in which our noble knight dropped his trousers, while Classic Spring cleverly opened with the lesser-performed A Woman of No Importance which offered the chance to see the more serious and emotional side of Wilde beneath the polished veneer and witty epigrams.
Vary the Presentation
Play selection might offer a Company all kinds of opportunities to present different types of production from different eras, but variety in staging and design can add considerably to arguments about the ongoing relevance of particular writers and their ability to draw on the consistent human emotions and behaviours that defy historical era. While each play is a standalone piece true to the purpose of the writer, a season should think more broadly about the visual effect it wants to create to offer variation and possibly even innovation for the repeat customer – it will be interesting to see the approach taken to setting and tone by the forthcoming Pinter season where up to four separate short plays will be presented on the same night.
Branagh’s season managed this well, often using the same design team across several plays, and presented five very different but thematically unified worlds to the audience. Running in repertory, viewers were taken from the magical pseudo-nineteenth-century kingdom of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale to the chaotic 1950s touring theatre of Harlequinade, with its faux medieval references in the costumes. The Painkiller, set in a Boutique Hotel, was a modern split screen with a sharp-suited assassin, while Romeo and Juliet referenced the monochrome glamour of 1960s La Dolce Vita Italy, before faded 1950s working-class Britain became the backdrop to The Entertainer. Each play was unique and individually designed to take the audience back and forth in time, but the human tragedy and delusion at the heart of every piece was always crystal clear, providing a unity across the work.
By contrast, the Wilde season seemed frustratingly unadventurous, despite different directors and designers separately taking charge of the four plays. Together they produced a remarkably unvarying and one-note portrayal of late nineteenth-century grandeur. Audiences have a passion for traditional Wilde, so it would be perfectly understandable that two or even three of the shows would want to retain their period-specific focus, but the hope that at least one would take a more creative path was soon dashed.
Of all the work presented in this season, An Ideal Husband most lends itself to taking a more unusual approach to characters and scenarios that more obviously reference the modern day. Most audience members may not regularly dine with the aristocracy, but politicians with dark secrets about the origins of their power being blackmailed by unscrupulous outsiders with plenty to gain is a recognisable and relatable construct. It becomes even more prescient when we consider that the inflexibility of the black and white morale code that Wilde toys with through the character of Gertrude, and which now reflects our Post-World War cultural love-affair with the anti-hero where a bad deed done for the right reason is forgivable and even desirably human.
Traditionalists will argue that to see Wilde performed well is always welcome, and An Ideal Husband was a particular highlight, but what is a season for if not to offer a creative opportunity to see the work afresh. One key way to do that is through the setting, imagining why the play has survived so well and what it has to say – Wilde’s writing is more than a string of funny lines, there is something about the fundamental human condition that runs through his work, which the repetitive framing failed to satisfactorily draw out.
Have a Point of View and a Grand Finale
Knowing what you want audiences to take-away from the work is the next key criteria, and strongly relates to the arguments above. As a collective body of work, what is it that the Company wants to say about the writer or the specific collection of plays that they have chosen to present? Or is the whole enterprise a cynical money-making scheme? Classic Spring’s original intent was to celebrate ‘proscenium playwrights’, rediscovering their ‘original brilliant wit and bold social critique,’ and across the four plays it is the former that has been the focus.
Emphasising the ways in which the work ‘still speak to us piercingly and profoundly today’ has been less clear, and after the emotionalism of A Woman of No Importance and the allusions we drew for ourselves in An Ideal Husband the productions themselves haven’t radically repositioned Wilde as a political commentator or collectively highlighted the foibles of social expectation, status and behaviour that could have drawn the four shows together. We enjoyed some of them as individual productions, but with a changing cast, director and designer they all felt independent of one another, and we haven’t learnt anything new from them as a collective experience.
The Wilde season built-up to The Importance of Being Earnest, rightly saving its most famous piece for the big finish. The end of the season is the opportunity to draw all of the strands together in the one production that visualises the season’s original themes, sending audiences away with a clear sense of its purpose and eager to see what the Company does next. Alas, The Importance of Being Earnest was a damp-squib, easily the worst of the set, an overly-forced disappointment receiving a heap of poor reviews. With little that was truly remarkable or insightful, where Classic Spring goes from here is hard to say.
By contrast, the Branagh season generate its own momentum, taking risks in the choice of production and style, while drawing the strands together in a loose but considered way. Thematically it focused on the theatrical life and particularly a desperation and delusion that prevented characters seeing their situations or themselves as they really are. From the faded starlets of Harlequinade to the star-crossed lovers driven to despair by family rivalry, audiences were able to form a picture across the series, culminating in the ultimate portrait of stale desperation in The Entertainer. A theatre season has to be more than the sum of its parts, we can love the individual plays but, through staging or unusual show selection, it should develop connections and insights for an audience that didn’t exist before.
Venue and Casting
Finding the right space is often more about availability than design, but in choosing the Vaudeville Classic Spring added an extra dimension to the work, meeting one of their key purposes of the season to stage shows in the place the playwright created them. Along with the added frisson, the Vaudeville also works for audiences with good sight lines from most seats. The Garrick was more frustrating for Branagh fans with a significant curve in the upper levels that obscured half of the stage, while the stalls seating is insufficiently raked for viewing.
Both seasons attracted plenty of famous faces guaranteed to draw audiences with Freddie and Edward Fox, Eve Best, Sophie Thompson and well-loved comedian Jennifer Saunders embodying some of Oscar Wilde’s most well-loved creations. Arguably by retaining some continuity of cast and crew between shows, Branagh’s approach had a deeper purpose, offering a form of repertory training for emerging talent on and off-stage, while providing platforms for actors fresh from drama school to work alongside theatrical titans including Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Greta Scacchi, and Branagh himself, as well as up-and-coming actors including Lily James, Richard Madden, Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman who had previously or would go on to work again with the notably loyal actor-director.
While the Critic no longer wields the make-or-break power they once held as audiences draw on a range of information when selecting a show, the reviews are still a valuable indicator of a production’s value in the wider landscape. Looking at the star ratings apportioned to each show in the Wilde and Branagh seasons by the leading publications is very revealing, and, in terms of average critical acclaim, The Branagh Theatre Company outperformed Classic Spring overall.
Looking at averages for The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Time Out, The Stage, WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub reveals:*
Only An Ideal Husband earned 3.5 stars or more, while three of Branagh’s shows achieved that. And despite a 5* outlier from Whatsonstage, The Importance of Being Earnest only received a damming 2.8 stars, Branagh’s lowest scoring show being Romeo and Juliet with 3.3 stars. The critics clearly found less to love in the Wilde season for some of the reasons mentioned above.
The dedicated theatre season is slowly becoming a notable and much-anticipated feature of West End scheduling, but running one is never as straightforward as it may seem. Putting on a series of shows loosely strung together has lessened the impact of the Wilde season, missing an opportunity to offer the promised new perspective. With a 6-month season dedicated to Harold Pinter about to begin over at the theatre named after him, Jamie Lloyd and his theatre company can learn some lessons from Classic Spring. With plenty of star names, rarely seen work and Lloyd’s particular touch, let’s hope London’s next big theatre season is one to remember.
The Classic Spring Oscar Wilde Season concludes with The Importance of Being Earnest until 20 October. The Pinter at the Pinter Season begins in September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1
* The full data from the critics:
Key – Tm – The Times, Tl -The Telegraph, Gd – The Guardian, In – The Independent, St – The Stage, TO – Time Out, Wh – WhatsonStage, RH – The Reviews Hub