Those expecting a frisson from the family dynamics of London’s latest “Lady Windermere’s Fan” are in for a disappointment, though no production that puts Vanessa Redgrave centerstage is ever likely to be less than arresting. It’s been the better part of two decades since Redgrave and her elder daughter, Natasha Richardson, starred together on the West End in “The Seagull,” with Redgrave now appearing opposite younger daughter Joely. The effect, to put it kindly, doesn’t place the junior Richardson in the kindest possible light, even when Redgrave seems content to clamp down her inherent radiance — which is to say during most of the first act. But then Redgrave snaps to attention, at which point Peter Hall’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play does, too, and this portrait of “a good woman” (Wilde’s own subtitle) meets a great actress head-on.
But it’s Richardson who has the title role of a society swell who would rather abandon her own birthday fete than share the room with the dreaded Mrs. Erlynne (Redgrave), whom Lady Windermere assumes — wrongly — is on the sexual payroll of her husband (David Yelland). It’s not just that Richardson’s line readings seem tentative and awkward; worse than that, she strikes no complicity with the audience during those important expository passages during which Lady Windermere must make her case.
Though Lord Windermere is quick to defend Mrs. Erlynne for having suffered “the sting of life,” Lady Windermere mistakes her husband’s putative dalliance as a stinging rebuke to her own self-worth, which in turn sends the anguished wife into the epigrammatic fold of Lord Darlington (Jack Davenport) — a quintessentially Wildean wit who revels in being “bad.”
The far superior second act lays bare the hypocrisies of the age, revealing the full depth of Mrs. Erlynne’s kinship to Lady Windermere alongside the good heart (however unrecognized) that has been her constant through life. In the end, Mrs. Erlynne occupies the moral high ground not just through sheer force of character — the extent of her self-abnegation is quite astonishing, even for the Victorians — but through the statuesque Redgrave’s robust occupancy of a stage that ends up reducing Richardson to near-amateur status: a mother making unwitting mockery of her daughter in a narrative that insists on the reverse.
Directing his first Wilde since the barnstorming production of “An Ideal Husband” that became a West End mainstay and traveled the world (Broadway included), Hall hasn’t unearthed the modern resonance in this play that proved such a tonic with the other one. His opening tableau — the company intoning the word “society” as it mills about behind designer John Gunter’s giant translucent fan — doesn’t get things off to the subtlest of starts. It isn’t until veteran thesp Googie Withers, playing the most venal of aristocratic Mayfair matrons, starts spreading alarm in her wake in her aspersions against the male sex that the kick one expects from this author kicks in. (Withers gets the play’s funniest line, encapsulating all Australia as “kangaroos flying about.”)
The men, the excellent Davenport included, get their chance to shine at the top of the second act, not least in an extended sequence of male badinage that crackles with flavorful apercus. (Roger Hammond’s memorably named and appropriately portly Dumby complains that being adored is “an immense nuisance.”) Elsewhere, it’s largely grin-and-bear it time, punctuated by flashes of inspiration from Redgrave, whose supposedly fallen woman in some essential way seems far too individual and eccentric not to end up flying high.