Wilde chatter in the park

6th June 2007 at 01:00

With an irony he might in other circumstances have appreciated, the English language's most brilliant wit had his career cut short by a nobleman of limited literacy. When he wrote an insulting note to Oscar Wilde, the Marquis of Queensberry accused him of being a "Somdomite".

A century after Wilde left an English jail for France, do we have the measure of his plays? A recent revival of A Woman of No Importance at Leicester Haymarket ponderously moved between statuesque poses for the epigrams and uneasy melodrama for the eventual plot.

At Chichester (in rep until July 5; 01243 781312) Lady Windermere's Fan scores mostly through its set - shocking blazes of pink amid gold and black, the surrounding pillars half-severed as if by an axe. Apart from Siri O'Neal's Lady Windermere, there is little sense of any problem in this play other than how the women could shunt their dresses huge trains around the stage. The crucial third act meeting of Lady Windermere and Mrs Erlynne loses it secret urgency - two women in a man's house at night - when their words are belted loudly across the stage.

The Importance of Being Earnest deliberately lacks the earnestness of Wilde's other plays. Terry Hands' revival at Theatr Clwyd (until June 7, 01352 755114) then Birmingham Rep (June 20-July 12, 0121 236 4455) is played around a cross between pavilion and gilded birdcage.

There are careful contrasts between its carefree Algernon and wound-up Jack, and between the urban clothes and manners of Gwendolen and the plain pink and fair, but forceful, Cecily. Diane Fletcher has Edith Evans-esque tones as Lady Bracknell but is visibly affected by others' words to her. A few bits of over-extended business and unnecessary act two insertions apart, this is a strong revival.

It sounds as if Ian Forrest's promenade production in Lancaster's Williamson Park (until June 28, 01524 66645) is playing on similar lines. Forrest sees in Lady Bracknell someone determined that her daughter will never know the poverty she herself has experienced. "She's enormously indulgent to Algy even if he's wayward at times," he says.

As for Algernon - "he's childish, living in the present to enjoy the moment. " Jack, with his uncertain origins, lacks Algy's easy confidence. "He wants to do what's proper though he lets his hair down occasionally when visiting his friend," says Forrest.

Gwendolen shares Jack's concern with doing the proper thing, like having a proposal from a man on one knee. "Jack's a bit cautious, but she'll model him after marriage," says Forrest. And Cecily? "She's isolated and rural, with limited horizons but soon adapts to people. She'll take to London society like a fish to water."

Forrest describes Chasuble as "an unwritten part, difficult to play. He has a generous spirit and I think he's good in parish work. But he's headbound, writing pamphlets even though they stay unpublished." Miss Prism is the opposite, being "all heart. She expresses passion as much as she's able and the Canon gradually responds sympathetically to her act three ordeal."

And Earnest's attraction overall? "The sheer joy Wilde takes in language, which is a crafted tool but also a ball kept in the air by these characters. All of them love the sound of their own voice."

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