Lady Windermere’s Fan, Vaudeville Theatre, London 2018

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This is the second play in Dominic Drumgoole’s Oscar Wilde season in the West End and it is directed by Kathy Burke. I attended this production with some trepidation because, although I really admire Oscar Wilde and find him very witty; his plays are full of arch bon mots, but this can make his characters cool and short on compassion. I often find myself laughing at what they say but I have little empathy for their plight.

However, Kathy Burke really brings out the difference between how the actions of men and the actions of women were perceived, by society, at the turn of the last century. She makes us aware of how sympathetic Oscar Wilde was to that difference. He demonstrates real dexterity in pinpointing this and he mocks it mercilessly. This is a  modern take on a play that is ultimately about the empowerment of women. Sam Spiro is excellent as Mrs Erlynne, the unrepentant scarlet woman, she perfected the brittle, sharp exterior protecting her secret and the emotions she did not wish to show.

Jennifer Saunders plays The Duchess of Berwick, in full-on dame mode. She sails into each scene with a new wonderful hat, drops her witty insights, sows the seeds of anarchy, and sails off. A wonderfully written cameo role, beautifully delivered.

It is the men in this play who are shallow. They are the real figures of fun, Joshua James is good as the insecure but supportive Lord Windermere.  Kevin Bishop is excellent as Lord Darlington; charming and in love, but likely untrustworthy. The scene with all the male characters, drunk, in the library is well done and very funny. This play is so full of famous lines that occasionally it feels like a litany of Wildean quotations.

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The set is cleverly done, all pastels and relatively simple, with echoes of the titular fan throughout – the shape of the windows and even the motif on the stage curtains. This is in contrast to the costumes.  The men are formal, I am convinced that Lord Darlington and Jacob Rees-Mogg have the same butler. The ladies are dressed in full rich concoctions designed to demonstrate a time when it was more important to show off ones wealth than ones taste.

Being a play in four acts, there is an entr’acte between the first and second and between the third and fourth. These were not written by Wilde and they felt out of place, the humour was crude by comparison, but they were common at the time of writing and it did give the production a period feel.

This was a very good production of a sparkling play, it made me see Wilde’s writing in a new light and I am looking forward to seeing the others in this promising season.

 

 

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

Franz Hals, the Laughing Cavalier
The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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Van Dyck, The Shepherd Paris

The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.

 

Cannon

Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

Vases

A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

Rembrandt, Susanna van Collen and Anna
Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.

Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London

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Apsley House is the smart, columned building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It has been the home of the Wellington family since the 18th Century, and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building, and many of the interiors are kept in the style of decoration that they would have had at the time they were built. It is unlikely that there is a better maintained aristocratic home in Central London.

The decoration is interesting, there is some of Roberts Adam’s 18th century classical interior design remaining. It was renovated in the early 19th Century when Wellington was living in Downing Street as Prime Minister. The Waterloo Gallery was added at this time to commemorate his victory over Napoleon, and to this day, there is a banquet held annually on 18th June to celebrate this.

Wellington Shield

There is also an amazing art collection, made up of gifts from grateful war allies, or items acquired as the spoils of war during the defeat of Napoleon. There are paintings by Titian, Van Dyke, Rubens, Goya and Velazquez and many others. You can even see the original painting that contained the image of Wellington, that was used on our old five pound note.

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The are many other items of historical interest. It holds the oldest grand piano in England. There are two beautiful porcelain dinner services on display; The Waterloo Meissen Banquet service, painted with scenes of his greatest victories, and the Josephine Egyptian dessert service given by Napoleon to his wife as a divorce gift.  Another highlight is the wonderful 3.5metre nude statue of “Napoleon as Mars the God of Peace” by Canova.

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The property is run by English Heritage, so it is free to enter if you are a member, but chargeable otherwise. The entry fee includes a touchscreen audio tour, this is very informative and there are seats in some of the rooms, where you can sit and listen to descriptions of the paintings and decoration. The no photographs rule is disappointing. The pictures here are from the tiled passageways under Hyde Park Corner.  The building is nice and cool on a warm summer day. It is also surprisingly quiet given its position, right in the centre of London.

If you are looking for a break from the more crowded tourist attractions in central London, Apsley House is well worth a visit.

Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee) 1995

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Sense and Sensibility is a good film, but I believe that it is almost false advertising to call it by that name. The story is so changed from the book that, although the characters have the same names and the final result is the same, it is totally unrecognisable in places as the same story. Some quite major characters have been killed off.  John Middleton is now a widower and their young child no longer in the story.  Lucy Steele’s sister, who blabs the whole story if the illicit engagement, is not in the film. Hugh Grant is far too affable in character for the grumpy Edward Ferrars in the book. Alan Rickman too easily wins Marianne over after her disappointment in Willoughby.  In fact, in this film, almost the least charming character is Willoughby, who in the book wins over Marianne, and her mother, by his easy false charm.

The acting is good, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are very good playing the romantic leads in a costume drama set in the 18th century. Emma Thompson is full of repressed emotion and Kate Winslett is fine as an impulsive teenager falling in love easily and recovering easily. Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie are wonderfully funny as Mr and Mrs Palmer.

There are some great moments of humour, the script has some wonderful lines. It is visually very attractive and there is much to admire in the period detail. A great deal of care and attention went into the making of this film and it shows throughout the movie.

It was nominated for seven Oscars. It won the one for best adapted screenplay. It was hugely popular and led to a revival of sales of Jane Austen’s novels and for these reasons it must be celebrated. I would probably have liked it more had I not read the novel itself so recently.

The film itself is most enjoyable but do go to see it as a Hollywood representation of upper class England in the late 1790s and not as a  faithful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the book.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is probably the most famous opening line to a novel in the whole of the English language.

Pride and Prejudice is one of the most loved books as well, it recently came second in a BBC poll of Britain’s best loved books and first in a major Australian poll of theirs. It was the second of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed and it is even wittier than Sense and Sensibility, her first.

Jane Austen gives a great idea of what it was like to be middle class in England in the late 18th century. She manages to portray the hopes and aspirations of the time, while gently poking fun at them. She has a fantastic talent for writing characters and, even though every one of them is slightly caricatured, we care about them despite their faults. She has a wonderful art of showing how people fool themselves into believing what they wish to believe, and this has a timeless quality, just as true today as it was over 300 years ago.

First and foremost, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel and there are 4 wonderfully different romances going on here, from the quite inappropriate, through the mildly shocking, to the wildly romantic and we have insight, as it also a comedy of formal manners, into how polite society looks upon them all.

The language is relatively concise, less of the longwinded descriptive prose that was fashionable at the time and more of the pithy epigram. It is easy to read, the story pulls you along, each chapter leaves you wanting to know what will happen next. The ending is wonderful and I’m sure this novel is at least partly responsible for the popularity of costume drama even today.

There are many good reasons why this is still one the most popular books written in English and, if you wish to become acquainted with classic English Literature, there is no better place to start.

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Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811

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Jane Austen was one the early successes of the self-publishing phenomenon. Sense and Sensibility was her first novel to be published and she underwrote the not inconsiderable costs of the first print run of 750 copies herself. Luckily they all sold and she made a reasonable profit.

Sense and Sensibility is a romantic novel about the coming of age of two sisters at the end of the eighteenth century. It gives a very good insight into the manners and the lives of the rich and of the upper middle class of that time.

This book is easy to read, it eschews the flowery, verbose writing of the time and is succinct and to the point. It is surprisingly funny; Jane Austen pokes gentle fun at the attitudes of her characters and she demonstrates very cleverly, how they convince themselves of their prejudices.

I enjoyed this book as well for its historical information on London. I loved that it is possible to tell which areas and streets were fashionable and which ones were more racy, in the 1790s, by the characters that lived there.

The language has changed slightly in the 200 years since it was written, but Jane Austen’s thoughts are simply put, so the differences are interesting to notice rather than difficult to understand. A case in point is the word sensibility in the title; this is a word that not much used any more, we would be more likely to use the word sensitivity, these days.

As an introduction to classic writing of the late 18th century, Jane Austen is as easy and enjoyable a venture as you are likely to find. I am looking forward to reading her next novel, Pride and Prejudice, and to watching a film adaptation to this one.