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Wilde At Heart
Joe Jackson talks to Elizabeth Moynihan, star of the Gate’s new production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, the classic Oscar Wilde play, which, in its new 1947 setting, explores the social mores of the upper classes in post-war London.
Joe Jackson, 20 May 2005
At one point during rehearsals for the Gate’s new production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, actress Elizabeth Moynihan and the rest of the cast were asked to watch the movie Brief Encounter. Why? To study the “movements”, in part because Alan Stanford, who directs this new production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, has relocated the late 19th century play to 1947 post-war London.
Elizabeth, who plays Lady Plymdale, obviously finds the idea inspiring. She also relishes the fact that “Peter O’Brien designed the costumes” and she herself “gets to feel what it would be like to be Nicole Kidman [her favourite actress] for two and a half months” in the sense that she wears a gown that would cost about E30,000!
“It’s a fantastic production and Lady Plymdale, even though she suffers from the most appalling case of the green-eyed monster of jealousy, is a magnificent character overall,” says Moynihan of Wilde’s classic play, in which the reputation of the lady of the title rests on the discreet recovery of a fan.
Or, as the Gate Press Release says, ‘The young but respectable Lady Windermere is having a select party to celebrate her coming of age. Her husband presents her with an elegant fan to mark the occasion…and an uncompromising ultimatum to invite a woman of dubious reputation to her party. Allegations, intrigue and confusion follow in this classic plot where nothing, and nobody, is quite as it seems.’ But why does Elizabeth find the 1947 setting so appropriate?
“Because its set in Mayfair and these people were caught in a time warp, almost untouched by the war,” she responds. “They lived in the lap of luxury, almost like an eco-system of their own, a world-within-a-world. The Second World War almost didn’t exist in Mayfair. These people didn’t have rationing. It was the servants who starved, not them. Though the captain in this play does come home from the war a little confused and they did have boys who had been sent off to the war, but one imagines they were few and far between. So their war obviously was a much cleaner war than it was for people below the stairs. And when you see Wilde’s play in this setting you realise just how timeless the man’s work was.
“He really was masterful. In fact, I think the new setting makes the play even more interesting and more resonant. And my character is just a vacuous socialite, who is deeply unfaithful, feels that Mrs. Erlynne – the female character next to Lady Windermere – is a social piranha trying to worm her way back into society, and knows she is a divorcee so this is completely unacceptable in aristocratic society at the time. And I get to flirt with practically every man in the room. I have a husband, a lover and I’m throwing shapes at Lord Windermere because already there is gossip around Mayfair that Windermere is having an affair with Mrs Erlynne. So it’s all wonderful stuff!”
Lady Windermere will be played by Katie Kirby, who is making her debut at the Gate, while Ingrid Craigie plays Mrs Erlynne and Mark O’Halloran plays Lord Windermere. “Overall the cast Alan Stanford has put together is part of the reason the whole thing is buzzing,” Elizabeth says. There also is the fact that this play is a masterpiece as penned by Oscar Wilde. “Absolutely,” Elizabeth agrees, though she laments that this can be a temporary drawback in terms of her own writing. She’s currently “in talks with the Old Vic” about a play she’s written called Slaughterhouse Swan, set in her hometown of Youghal. On the day we met she’d brought in her laptop, but “couldn’t even open it” as she was so overwhelmed, yet again, by Wilde’s brilliance as a writer.
“The play is so perfectly constructed and written and never, for a moment, deviates from its through-line, so it does take your breath away,” she says. “Wilde really was a master and this really exemplifies his mastery. But, as a writer, it makes me feel why am I bothering! But then he was a genius and a great scholar and I’m not even in the halfpenny place compared to Oscar Wilde. Still, I’ll get to work on the play in time because what I write has its own merit and is the polar opposite of Wilde, in the sense that the characters in my play are generally uneducated, have no money and are a million miles away from Mayfair in every sense.”
Lady Windemere’s Fan is currently playing at the Gate Theatre.