“All art is at once surface and symbol,” Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”
Director Peter Hinton has risked looking under the glittering facade of Wilde’s 1892 comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan – and the reward is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous and impeccably acted production that offers a rigorous rethink of a well-worn play.
This is Wilde as you’re not likely to have seen or heard him before – dark and wrenching as well as witty, with stunning sets inspired by Impressionist paintings by John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, clever staging ideas borrowed from Cirque du Soleil and Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, and a soundtrack that ranges from Rufus Wainwright to The Velvet Underground.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is subtitled “a play about a good woman” – and, in it, Wilde investigates whether good men and women can be truly found in a world of imperfect humans. The title character (Marla McLean) begins as an innocent with idealistic views about love and marriage. We meet her on her 21st birthday, spinning carefree around an all-white room in front of long, billowing sheer curtains as Rufus Wainwright’s The Art Teacher plays. ("I was just a girl then; never have I loved since then.")
Lady Windermere may have a six-month-old son, but she is still a child herself – at least until the Duchess of Berwick (Corrine Koslo, effortlessly hilarious) barges in bearing bad tidings that will make her grow up quickly. Her news: Lord Windermere has been paying regular house calls to a mysterious Mrs. Erlynne and paying her large sums of money.
Shocked, Lady Windermere asks: “Are all men bad?”
“Oh, all of them, my dear, all of them, without any exception – and they never grow any better,” the Duchess replies. “Men become old, but they never become good.”
This not-so-friendly advice alters Lady Windermere’s perspective – and that of the entire production. From the lady’s bright morning room, we shift to the lord’s dark study, where a black bookcase rises to the ceiling ominously and our heroine soon discovers proof that her husband (Martin Happer, heartily holding his cards close to his chest) has been keeping Mrs. Erlynne in cash.
At the ball that follows, Hinton skillfully conjures an atmosphere choked with unease as Lady Windermere anxiously awaits the arrival of Mrs. Erlynne – who eventually appears in the form of Tara Rosling at her most charmingly demonic. A fan drops – and it seems to carry all the weight of a woman falling.
The director’s approach to the party and the subsequent after-party is painterly – creating tableaus that show off the nightmarish beauty of Teresa Przybylski’s set and William Schmuck’s costumes, lit with expressionistic menace by Louise Guinand. Meanwhile, guests played by the talented likes of Jim Mezon, Kyle Blair and Patrick McManus pose and fire off Wilde’s famous epigrams. “In this world there are only two tragedies,” says McManus’s Mr. Dumby. “One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
While in other productions, these witticisms are tossed out like glitter, sparkling a moment before disappearing, here they shine briefly in the dark like shark teeth – but the bite marks linger. “How hideous life is,” Lady Windermere says, having felt the sharp incisors of society for the first time – and you feel all the pain of her betrayal and disillusionment acutely.
For the first three acts, Hinton dissects the play as he stages it. Inspired by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge (and perhaps Electric Theatre Company’s Studies in Motion), he presents women of the period frozen mid-movement. He also uses four black sliding panels that come from all directions as a lens to limit our view of the Festival Theatre’s stage – an effect I first saw used in Cirque’s Los Angeles spectacle, Iris.
As Lady Windermere and the audience finally come to understand the play in all its moral complexity, however, Hinton also lets us see how the original set pieces form a whole, neither black nor white. Can life actually be more beautiful once your ideals and illusions are shattered and you see the entire picture? Wilde believes it is possible and Hinton seconds him.
While Hinton makes Lady Windermere’s Fan’s stakes felt – we’re dealing with not one, but two women on the verge here – he never loses sight of the fact that he’s directing a comedy. The first half ends with fireworks, ironically, going off at a party that the guest of honour has already fled. The second half ends with McLean centre stage, a firework herself, crackling and sparkling joyously. Cue the appropriate Katy Perry hit and pure cathartic joy.
Hinton, who recently ended his tenure as artistic director at the National Arts Centre, had a triumph marrying his high-concept direction to the Shaw company’s acting chops in 2011 with his superb studio production of When the Rain Stops Falling.
But this surpasses it. Indeed, in a single stroke, it makes the Shaw Festival an essential stop this summer for sophisticated theatregoers who see no reason why classics shouldn’t be cutting edge.