Corset comedy with a serious core
Timothy Ramsden previews a new touring production of an Oscar Wilde play which carries a message even after 113 years
Ben Twist hopes audiences will leave his Pitlochry production of this "play of modern life" surprised an Oscar Wilde comedy has made them think so much.
Wilde constructs his comedy with a near-plotless first act, filled with witty talk; two central acts which open with such conversation before moving to serious material, and a final act virtually devoid of Wildean epigrams but filled with serious purpose.
There's a third-act ending that could come out of melodrama, while late in the play the young American Hester and the woman-with-a-past, Mrs Arbuthnot, provide examples of the heavily imaged language associated with Wilde works such as Salome.
Twist believes Wilde helps the actors with the more highly-wrought material by clearing each act of all but central characters for the serious sections, and providing a psychological truth which actors can play in the later scenes.
Set amid Lady Hunstanton's house-party, the glittering conversation reflects the varied society this hostess has carefully collected. The variety is shown in the guests' conversation. The three middle-class characters talk more directly than their social superiors. For the upper crust, the epigrams are a way of self-expression and they vary in their success with them. "That's how you showed who you are, when you can't move because of your corset and you can't show emotions because that's not done," says Twist. Characters vary in their success with the wit. Lord Illingworth and Mrs Allonby excel; Lady Caroline is less successful.
"Corset" suggests a mainly female society, reflecting a play where women dominate. Twist sees Wilde as a proto-feminist who admired Ibsen and Shaw, and points out that Mr Kelvin, the Member of Parliament in this gathering, is from the liberal, progressive side of the Commons.
Hester Worsley, the rich, young puritanical American, signifies the US as a place of freedom and women's rights. Yet she undergoes her own moral journey; her stark attitude to fallen women changing when Mrs Arbuthnot describes her past.
Twist casts many of the English society ladies younger than they are often played, believing a Lady Hunstanton still in her fifties, keeping a grip on her little society, is stronger than a doddery older wit.
Yet her grasp slips, as a passage Wilde cut from his last act made explicit. Here the personal and political meet. The British Empire was beginning to lose its grip 113 years ago, just as now there are signs of shifts in world balances of power. Twist points out the denunciations of a stagnant society the American Hester makes against England would most likely today be levelled against the West by voices from further East.
Clearly, this remains a play of some importance.