Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

Running Wilde: How to Manage a Theatre Season

Oscar Wilde Season - An Ideal Husband

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.

  • Critical Data

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:*

Season Averages

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:

Critics Data

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

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An Ideal Husband – Vaudeville Theatre

An Ideal Husband - Vaudeville Theatre

Of all Oscar Wilde’s plays, An Ideal Husband is arguably the most socially and politically relevant to the modern day. In post-war Britain, the rise of the tabloid newspaper and the political scandal appear to have gone hand-in-hand, and while Profumo-esque sex scandals will always be stock-in-trade for these publications, we are increasingly concerned with how MPs make their money. From the “cash for questions” affair in 1994 to the expenses debacle beginning in 2009, whether our Parliamentary representatives are taking legitimate steps to prepare for their future or feathering their own nests at the expense of democracy, reveals so much about the integrity of those we elect.

Wilde’s play still speaks to these important questions, asking not only about the financial legitimacy of those in the House of Commons, but also about the dangerous extent to which we idolise, and therefore sanitise, our public figures only to be disappointed when they are revealed to be all too human. And while building people up only to tear them down ranks high among favourite British past-times, as An Ideal Husband reveals, this can only happen when we put someone on a pedestal, bringing with it the corrective problem of subsequently setting them down too low, as Lord Goring aptly reminds Lady Chiltern of the punishment she inflicts on her once perfect spouse.

With such sharp relevance to political life in twenty-first century Britain, it seems a shame then that Classic Spring’s latest production, directed by Jonathan Church, though beautifully realised and worthy of many of its 4-star reviews, should muzzle its bite in a season that has, so far, failed to break the mould. Wilde is a wonderful playwright and a huge audience favourite – whether amateur or professional, there is almost certainly a production somewhere at all times, in fact there’s probably a by-law insisting upon it.

There is no danger of Wilde being forgotten, or his plays falling out of fashion, they remain as much a staple of the theatrical landscape as Shakespeare, so why then stage a dedicated London season without anything new to say? It is a money-spinner certainly, undoubtedly charming, witty and fun to play for the actors and directors, as well as a delight to watch, but audiences have seen it all a hundred times before, the approach taken in Dominic Dromgoole’s season to date has hardly set the canon on fire.

The three productions have all been very enjoyable with some great performances and high production values that have envisioned a series of charming room sets evoking comfortable wealth filled with beautifully dressed aristocrats. Eve Best as the titular Woman of No Importance along with a marvellous comic turn from Anne Reid in the same production were charming. Jennifer Saunders took no comedy prisoners to become the joyous highlight of a rather romantic take on Lady Windermere’s Fan. Here too, An Ideal Husband has a lovely gold and white set designed by Simon Higlett, whose costumes are a marvellous nod to the power of the female characters and the modish splendour of Lord Goring. But these wrappings reinforce the idea of Wilde’s play as a museum piece, which is far from the case. The class structure may be less pronounced, but Wilde’s view of humanity, and delight in mocking the pompous, vain, ambitious and scheming characteristics of society, are as prescient as ever. If any of Wilde’s plays were crying out for a modern spin particularly in a reverentially dedicated season, then An Ideal Husband certainly is. Enjoyable though it is, the overriding impression of this version at the Vaudeville Theatre is that Dromgoole et al have missed a trick.

And it’s a trick that would also have solved the other big issue that affects this production – it’s determination to depart from Oliver Parker’s wonderful 1999 film that set a high bar for subsequent interpretations. In some of the performances, it is clear that different decisions have been made in order to separate from the movie, but this only serves to weaken the personality of particular characters causing an imbalance in the play. A modern setting could have alleviated some of these issues, opening up the possibility of even stronger female characterisation than offered here, and tapping into a renewed devotion to political theatre that has been such a feature of West End productions in the last 12 months.

Sally Bretton’s Gertrude, for example, has become simpering and even shrill, barely suggesting the strength of character that should ultimately make her as much a match for the plotting Mrs Cheveley, as it does for her eminent husband. Where the text implies a passion for female liberation and, crucially, a true partner in a marriage of equals, Bretton’s Gertrude is a wallflower who relies solely on men to fix her problems. As a consequence, her scenes with Nathaniel Parker’s Sir Robert Chiltern have a whining quality rather than the logic of a devoted but sensible wife forced to recast her image of both her husband and herself.

Likewise, Francis Barber’s Mrs Cheveley borders occasionally on pantomime villain relishing the political hold she has over men, and Sir Robert in particular, but without fully convincing us of the sexual and emotional hold that she is fully capable of deploying to achieve her end. The supposed pre-relationship with Freddie Fox’s Lord Goring is a bit of a stretch given the age difference and while as a young man he may have “enjoyed” her company, it’s hard to believe the pair were truly in love enough to have considered marriage.

Where this production excels is in its approach to the comedy of Wilde’s dandyish characters and here the much-lauded appearance of father and son Edward and Freddie Fox is the backbone of this production. There is huge enjoyment to be had in the waspish bantering of the Gorings who find each other’s company irritating and unfathomable, entirely on different tracks but yoked together in a wonderfully bitter relationship that they cannot, and potentially would not, do without.

As Lord Goring, Freddie Fox builds well on his comic career to date, but his approach feels fresh, even modern in such a traditional take on the play. He has a feel for the rhythm of Wilde’s language, allowing him to make the lines seem like everday speech, natural conversation rather than a series of witty remarks strung together which is too often a failing of such stagings. Fox captures the arrogance and immense self-obsession that marks Goring’s character while still also suggesting a true generosity of heart that explains his desire to help his friends and ultimately himself to a more complex emotional life. It is a fine and vital performance that brings the various elements of the plot together with incredible skill.

Fox senior has considerably less stage time but enjoys every moment as the obstreperous Earl of Caversham, berating his wayward son and landing every insult with superb control. Nathanial Parker brings a nice sense of dignity to the set-upon Sir Robert Chiltern, hinting at the unrepentent conceit of a man who has scrambled his way to power by whatever means necessary, mixed with the fear of losing the respect of the wife he adores. Parker conveys Chiltern’s confliction, and despite becoming the face of honour and respectability, you still feel that he isn’t that ashamed of his murky past.

As we all now know, politics is (and always has been) a dirty business, and Chiltern represents a realistic portrait of how real power is founded, often not through essential decency, morality and achievement alone, but from dubious opportunity, whatever you make of it afterwards. It is something that Wilde clearly recognises in An Ideal Husband, that worth and duty can emerge from a less than auspicious start, that goodness is far more complex than idolisation imagines.

The modernity of these ideas is so striking that, in an otherwise charming and chic production, it can only be a shame that Classic Spring didn’t decide to take a risk with this interpretation. In a very traditional season and with tickets to sell, it is understandable, but the most remarkable theatre experiences come from innovation, from seeing beyond the surface of the text and every prior interpretation to find a new way to bring a story to the audience. In recent years several writers whose work has always been coddled, held captive by the era in which they wrote, have found new resonance, and if we can do that for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Ibsen, then its also time to let Wilde free.

An Ideal Husband is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 14 July. Tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


A Woman of No Importance – Vaudeville Theatre

A Woman of No Importance - Vaudeville Theatre

Having once been the Artistic Director of a major London theatre whatever you choose to do next will generate significant interest. Next week former National Theatre head Nicholas Hytner welcomes his inaugural press night to The Bridge Theatre, London’s first brand new playhouse in years, while tonight former Globe AD Dominic Dromgoole launches his year-long celebration of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre, opening with this production of A Woman of No Importance.

It’s fairly unusual for a Wilde play to open cold in the West End these days and more often versions come from regional or touring productions that earn a transfer, so this is a particularly interesting choice for Dromgoole. Last year, Kenneth Branagh concluded a 12-month residency at the Garrick Theatre that has brought the curated season back into fashion, so Dromgoole’s four-play collective under his new Company Classic Spring, that will also include An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and up next Lady Windermere’s Fan from January is less of a risky venture than it would perhaps have been considered 2 years ago.

Wilde’s comedy plays are frequently performed by professional and amateur theatre companies and much loved by audiences. Like Noel Coward, you know exactly what you’re going to get before you sit down and the less frequently performed A Woman of No Importance has all the ingredients that you expect; a collection of snobby aristocrats, a comedy vicar, a dark secret that threatens to expose the leading man and as many witticisms on the nature of man and society as you can stuff into 2.5 hours. But by the end of Dromgoole’s sparkling production it also has something else… it has heart.

At the country home of Lady Hunstanton, a collection of society’s finest have gathered for a dinner party where it is announced that young Gerald Arbuthnot is to become secretary to the eternal bachelor Lord Illingworth. Still in his prime, Illingworth flirts mercilessly with the ladies as the guests happily exchange gossip and bon mots, while espousing their political ideas on love, marriage and social decency. Into this happy scene comes Gerald’s mother, the sorrowful Rachel Arbuthnot who is surprised to come to face-to-face with a figure from her past and a shocking secret is revealed.

The downfall of many an Oscar Wilde production is trying too hard to make it funny rather than trusting the rhythm of the lines which do almost all the work for an actor. Dromgoole’s production suffers no such concerns and has assembled a very fine cast who create a genuine impression of a group of people who’ve become comfortable with each other’s caprices over the years, while mostly delivering the text as though it were natural speech. It’s a large cast which has been carefully considered and directed to ensure even the smallest role is distinct, and even the servants have a quietly present role to play in suggesting the life of a busy household.

Absolutely stealing the show, Anne Reid is a magnificent Lady Hunstanton, the comfortable dowager whose easy hosting style reveals a love of life and real pleasure in the diverting company of her friends. Reid exudes warmth and makes you long to be her guest, but, in what could have been a quite an empty role relegated to ushering people from room to room in search of food and entertainment, Reid allows her Lady Hunstanton to become subtly more inebriated as the evening unfolds, throwing in an overlarge turn here, one restrained hiccup there, that make you long for her return every time she leaves the stage. With spot-on timing, her performance is a comic joy.

The production’s coup de theatre however is to use Reid and her servants as the entertainment between Acts and while the curtain momentarily comes down to rearrange the set, Reid and co sing a selection of appropriately themed drawing-room songs while we wait. It’s a cunning and entirely successful piece of staging that keeps the plays momentum through the frequent changes of location while offering the audience a touch of innovation as Reid sings to us as her character as though revealing the after-dinner accomplishments all ladies were expected to have, a wonderful Vaudevillian moment (in the most appropriately named theatre). One of the servants then invites us back to join the other guests, a lovey touch.

As the woman of the title, Eve Best is quite the opposite as Rachel Arbuthnot, a sombre and emotional figure walking through the party like the spectre at the feast. Best is always very good at delivering long-repressed emotion, and although she slightly overdoes the histrionics in the Third Act, she makes up for it in the Fourth with a nice sense of self-possession and vindication as her experiences lead to the play’s conclusion. At times, perhaps, a tad more bitterness and vitriol could be introduced when faced with the person who wronged her, but her final extensive monologue to her son is full of love and delivered with feeling.

This is very much a play about women and their power in society so much of the action focuses on their interaction in the drawing room as well as the airing of their contrasting political views. Emma Fielding is excellent as the modern Mrs Allonby, talking to the men as their equal, flirting openly and revelling in her position as a married woman with considerable freedom away from her husband. She has a nice frisson with Dominic Rowan’s Lord Illingworth as well as frosty dislike of the more puritan Hester Worsley. Eleanor Bron has a natural superiority as Lady Caroline Pontefract who easily dismisses the concerns of others while keeping close watch on her husband, and Crystal Clark as Hester manages the contrast of her discomfited American puritan among careless wealth well.

Apart from the central scandal, the men all seem rather superfluous in this world of women, but Dominic Rowan is suitably scathing as Lord Illingworth, maintaining a sense of the magnetism of the character that makes him popular and attractive to women, but balances this with a slightly unsavoury predatory approach to young women and a final flourish that should blow away any audience sympathies. Harry Lister Smith is an innocent and eager Gerald while Sam Cox as Sir John and Will Kelly as servant Farquar get plenty of laughs.

Dromgoole’s direction creates a smooth and sparkly production that zips along, makes the best of Wilde’s social comedy and brings out the anguished undertones and comment on the consequences of privilege that make the final act convincing. A Woman of No Importance is a fine start to this year of Wilde plays and while I harbour a secret hope that at least one of the four productions will surprise us with a more innovative setting, this opener proves that with a clear vision and a very fine cast this should be quite the crowd-pleaser.

A Woman of No Importance is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 30 December and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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