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Frances Babbage


Why did we attempt to reinvent Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan for two actors? Rob and Lauren explain the context of the project: the necessity to put on a production, and a 'group' of just two students. And, as they both say, it did not seem enough to choose a play with two parts and stage it: from the beginning I was determined that we would do a project with 'attitude', a task that was evidently critical as well as creative. Both Rob and Lauren present the decision to work on Lady Windermere's Fan as collective, but the truth is rather that I forced the project on them; they could have rejected it, I suppose, but given that we had only 5 weeks of term to put it together there was a pressure to go ahead with it rather than spend time exploring alternatives. Actually, I like that in Rob's and Lauren's accounts they speak of collective decision-making, because it signals what I wanted this imposed project to become, all along; I may have given the impetus and set initial parameters, but my intention – certainly my hope – was that the two of them would quickly assume  ownership of the work. And they did.

I have always been fascinated by rewritings of existing texts, and love the experience as an audience member of watching simultaneously a play that I know and another that I don't. (I won't spend time here on the less positive experience of witnessing a play I know mistreated and misunderstood - a highly subjective position, I realise.) And at the back of my mind I had a vivid and happy memory of Ridiculusmus's 2005 two-man The Importance of Being Earnest and, going back to 1994, Volcano's (I think) four-actor How to Live (Ibsenities), a wonderful production whose first half presented a cut of several of Ibsen's domestic dramas, then on a transformed stage moved in its second half to the wilder landscapes of Peer Gynt and Brand. We couldn't attempt anything so ambitious, I knew: the practised comedic routines of Ridiculusmus and the athleticism of Volcano were both unachievable by us. But we could still aim high.

 I think it was the Ridiculusmus show that made me turn to Wilde. The idea of taking minor characters as a starting-point for rewriting made me look at the servant roles – and I arrived finally at Lady Windermere's Fan because there were just two servants who spoke, one male and one female, and because as Rob notes their roles are scarcely more than functional. These are small (and dull) parts. These are not witty servants, like Lane the butler in The Importance of Being Earnest, offering dryly humorous commentaries on the behaviour of their 'betters'. They serve – that's all.  Choosing Parker and Rosalie as the basis for a performance left all the work absolutely still to do.

Initially I had wondered whether I could set Rob and Lauren the strictest of rules: that the only spoken text they could use was the lines spoken by the servants in the play. We did begin a bit like this, examining what Lady Windermere's Fan 'looked like' as seen purely through the speeches and actions of Rosalie and Parker. Somewhat surprisingly, you could actually  locate  the action of Wilde's play in and between the servants' lines, their entrances and exits: key characters are announced; preparations for the ball are mentioned (Rob's so-called 'favourite speech': 'The men want to know if they are to put the carpets on the terrace for tonight, my lady'); Rosalie mentions the mysterious disappearance of the fan; and so on. But although we created initial moments of performance using the servants' lines, such as the movement sequence that we eventually used at the beginning of the production, these all felt a bit like exercises; it was not yet clear what could hold a show like this together.

We all agreed fairly early on in the process that we did want to tell the story of the play, at least after a fashion. The motivation for this was partly as I've said: we needed a shape for the whole, so why not use the one we already had? But as well as this, it seemed too wasteful simply to throw away so much of Wilde's play; if we kept only the servants' lines and actions we would be consciously choosing to retain what were, frankly, the least interesting elements of the original source. Of course, we could make them interesting; but we also wanted to exploit all that we had enjoyed in the play that Wilde wrote. The decision to convey the narrative of Lady Windermere's Fan immediately helped us leap forward, creatively. Given the shortness of time, I was fairly brutal: come next week with a way to 'tell' Act 1 and Act 2, I told Rob and Lauren, through Parker and Rosalie – how you do it is up to you. The account each gives shows how the tasks were tackled. Rob  was particularly keen to work with the film versions we had looked at, so created what seemed on paper an enormously complicated staging on Act 1 where live actors onstage would seem to 'enter' the living room shown on film. This did, eventually, work very well. The device allowed us to expose onstage an imaginary servants' quarters, a space to which the play makes no reference, and to juxtapose this visually with the (filmed) 'official' action of the play that takes place between the main characters in the Windermeres' living room. It also enabled us to show how the play had been understood by filmmakers in the past: we could play sections from Fred Paul's beautiful silent film as well as from the BBC's more 'faithful' 1985 version (we wanted to include elements from the 2005 A Good Woman too, but simply ran out of time). But the device of juxtaposing live and filmed action also gave us the opportunity to imagine additional, lightly subversive actions: Parker stealing, or eavesdropping at the living room door, for instance, and (more surreally) Rob's idea that Parker could secretly be the author of Lord Darlington's witty lines that he sells to the aristocrat on a regular basis.

 
Lauren's proposal for Act 2 was at least as complicated as Rob's to implement, although very different in style. I loved her idea that Parker and Rosalie could re-enact an edited account of the ball for the audience: this had a pleasing logic to it that not all our ideas could boast, in that spectators were invited to suppose that the ball had already happened (we saw a montage of scenes of this from the two films), that the servants were clearing up the debris, and that they were mimicking what had occurred using the dropped masks, flowers, champagne glasses etc as props. And with this as the basis, Lauren came up with further, pleasing refinements: each character's mask indicated something of their persona, often in non-realistic ways, for instance Dumby's mask had wispy eyebrows and Hopper's (the Australian) was adorned with strings of corks. Act 2 was probably the most technically challenging for Rob and Lauren to perform, but at its best it worked well – and, like Act 1, gave a subversive take on an upper class world from an underclass perspective.

In the relatively early stages of working on the piece, I searched for the kind of driving dynamic or question that, it seemed to me, we needed to give the work shape and purpose. Two parallel issues emerged for me: first, what it means to be a servant in life; and two, what it is like to be a servant in theatre. We explored those issues in different ways, for instance by asking (as I have described) what the action of the play might look like through the servants' eyes, what they might be doing in imagined other scenes that Wilde did not choose to include. But I became even more fascinated by the actors' experience. Is it really true that (as somebody allegedly once said) 'there are no small parts, only small actors'? Isn't it more honest to say that there are some pretty uninspiring roles around, the undistinguished 'extras' that Ricky Gervais has made the basis for his recent TV series? This was my own breakthrough, where I  began to recognise the metatheatrical possibilities in developing the attitudes of 'Rob' and 'Lauren' to the small parts they'd been given. Hence their self-aggrandizing interviews, and especially the final scene of the our production where I got to 'fire' Lauren from the cast, the poor girl literally dismissed without a character.

Act 4 (our version) was where I really began to enjoy myself with this project. The idea came that Lauren, sacked as an actress and, by implication, as a maid, could re-enter the action with a new sense of freedom and sabotage it. At the same time, her re-entry into our version of Act 4, no longer in her servant's uniform, offered itself as a kind of parallel with the return of Mrs Erlynne to the Windermeres' house, her status as destroyer or saviour of the couple's marriage increasingly ambiguous. The lines of Wilde's play leant themselves brilliantly to this dual reading: an outraged Rob, left (as a result of Lauren's dismissal) to take on the 'work' of two servants rather than one, got to deliver several of Lord Windermere's furious addresses to Mrs Erlynne: ÔWhat do you mean by coming back here, after the way you behaved? It's monstrous your intruding yourself like this!'

There's plenty more I could write about this production, but I don't want to abuse (more than I have already) the tutor's privilege of having the last word. What began as an imposed task did become a genuinely shared enterprise, and  a  highly satisfying one. It gave me a heightened  appreciation  of Wilde as a playwright, even though we were somewhat disrespectful towards the text we had taken as a source. I don't think we destroyed it, however; but readers can look at the play that we created, and decide this for themselves.









































































Rob Neumark Jones


For our MA in Theatre & Performance Studies, we undertook a project which eventually culminated in a performance, based upon Lady Windermere's Fan, called No Small Parts. The genesis of this project was born from a number of factors. We knew that we had only two performers - Lauren and I - but we also did not just want to stage an existing two-person play. We had tougher aspirations. From some background reading and general knowledge, a number of ideas were explored where two people were the centre of the action, who might conventionally have been on the periphery, e.g. Jean Genet's The Maids, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. This idea was instantly appealing to us, especially with the idea of the house staff taking centre stage, which also had relevance to the module's title - Theatre and Society. The text which we agreed upon was Wilde's comedy Lady Windermere's Fan. It seemed particularly suitable because the servants have several lines but no characterisation. Taking their lines, we found nothing but minutiae and orders within. Perfect! 

But we needed actual characters if we were to perform a play based around these two figures - Parker and Rosalie - who were, as it stood, little more than functions to advance the progress of the play. So we set about exploring what type of characters it would be interesting for servants to have. Devious, underhand, running    rackets  out  of  the back door, ill-tempered, foul mouthed, sinister, drunkards? All these ideas and more were floated, lots of them stuck. Before we knew it, we had created two  figures with personality, who started to come alive even more than the main characters in the play!

However, we still had a basic problem. Parker had around twelve or so lines. Rosalie had just four, and all in Act Four. Something had to be done and we felt that the story of the play still needed to be told. So we each went away to come up with ways of both exploring our characters and at the same time trying to tell at least a skeletal version of Lady Windermere's Fan.                   

Act One we decided to tell through video, with the help of Fred Paul's spectacularly melodramatic silent film (1916). We began with a naturalistic movement piece - servants bustling - which culminated in choreographed repetition of a number of stylised movements, silhouetted against the video. From then on, the video itself was used a kind of drawing room: a curtain hanging next to it was the door, through which characters were shown, the actors thus simultaneously disappearing from the stage and appearing on the video. Lauren was given the difficult task of putting on the various hats (literally) of all the characters who arrive and depart during the first act: Lord Darlington, the Duchess and Lady Agatha, and Lord Windermere. This was achieved by quick costume changes and frantic backstage     running,    whilst Parker spied upon the action that was projected onscreen.

Parker, onstage throughout all this, was given a peculiar trait. He, it was decided, would literally 'sell' Lord Darlington's best lines to Lord Darlington. All the famous quips - "life is far too important a thing to be serious about" and "I can resist everything except temptation" - became commodities, which Parker thought up, wrote down, and sold on to the irritable, but desperate Lord Darlington.

Act Two - the ball scene - on the surface appeared to be the most difficult. There were at least 14 speaking roles, and the servants played almost no part in it. But an ingenious solution was arrived at. Again using video, this time also using footage from a 1970's BBC production, we showed the ball in full swing. The lights then came up on Parker and Rosalie enjoying the absence of guests by swigging the remaining champagne and generally mucking about. Parker and Rosalie then proceeded to recount the events of Act Two as a kind of puppet show. Using personalised masks which we made, and a variety of voices, I took on all the male roles, Lauren the female ones, and we told the story of Act Two, using moments selected either for their importance to the story or their comic value. It was the most challenging, and subsequently usually the most enjoyable, part of the play: potentially baffling, but always entertaining.

Sandwiching Act Three was a couple of videos. The impetus  for  these  had been our sense that it must be disheartening for an actor, actually to play the  original parts of Parker or Rosalie in Wilde's play. So we thought, why not present interviews with these 'actors' (me and Lauren playing ourselves playing actors) and their account of how it is to play such a part? However, we made sure to put on the smiles for the camera, and so the interviews had the comic aspect of deluded actors trying to aggrandize their own roles, with either acceptance or denial of the facts as they really were.

Thus from Act Two, the play began to take on a more postmodern, metatheatrical feel. This intensified during Act Three, which took the form of two monologues, telling the story through an absurdist method of collecting various single words or stage directions and collating them into a continuous line of speech. And if that sounds confusing to read, imagine what it was like to see. Nevertheless, we still managed to include the denouement the fan being discovered and revelation of Mrs Erlynne.

After the second actor's video, Act Four began, and from the instant it did, it was clear that the play had switched parameters. Parker was sitting 'in the wings' reading An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski, and Rosalie was nervously preparing for her 'big entrance'. Finally, she entered, but in a clearly agitated manner - using irrational movements (based around the stylised movements that began the play) that had no place with her lines. After this surreal delivery  had  gone  on  for  a short while, there was a murmur from the audience, and finally Frances (our co-writer and course convener) interrupted, stopping Lauren dead in her tracks, and accosting her - "What do you think you're doing? is this how you think you should conduct yourself in front of Lady Windermere? Go back, and do it again".

Watching the audience slowly realise that the interruption was scripted was always a magnificent moment. Lauren then walked confusedly offstage, dejectedly back onstage, and proceeded to deliver the same line as before, in an equally oddball stylised way, only this time in a very subdued manner. This was too much for Frances, who again interrupted, then abused, and finally 'fired' Lauren then and there. Lauren, unable to get any sympathy from Frances or Rob, left in a huff.

Rob was then asked to fill in for both parts, which he reluctantly agreed to do, and after a speech in which the argument between Lord and Lady Windermere was related, Lauren returned, attired in a leading lading dress. We had crossed over to a different place. The end of the act was a strange but funny mix of lines from the play, musings on the pros and cons of various types of drama, and a final reconciliation of 'struggling actor' Rob/Parker with 'performance art' Lauren, who bid farewell.

An uncomfortable Rob, stuck onstage with two small parts he never wanted, attempted to both retain his dignity and masculinity, whilst at the same    time    performing    a maid's duties. It proved too much for him, and he made a bolt for the door, at which point the lights went down and a video came on. It was a faux silent film, made by us but influenced very much by the exaggerated melodrama of the 1916 Lady Windermere's Fan, in which a desperate Rob chases the departing Lauren. He finally catches up with her, they talk, and he asks her the line which flashes up, the punch line of the play which always raised a big laugh: "Tell me more about this Performance Art". They then laugh, link arms, and walk off into the sunset. The lights go up, we take our bows, and the play ends.

No Small Parts was a hugely enjoyable process from start to finish (even though plagued by technical problems until the day before the performance). The way our relationship with Wilde's play progressed as we wrote our own, the former unravelling further and further from its origin, but all the time revealing new layers, was the most satisfying aspect of the whole thing. Perhaps it could be argued that what we produced was at times overly self-referential, but the audience laughed all the way through, and getting that big laugh at the end proved to us that the play was good, and gave me a feeling of pride that was heart-warming. We created an intelligent play, that I will remember fondly, and always say I was proud to be a part of.








 

 

Lauren Williams

As part of our Masters degree in Theatre and Performance Studies at Sheffield University we have found ourselves undertaking a practical module, entitled Theatre and Society, with only two people in our group. This in itself was our initial challenge and stimulation for the project we eventually created, and Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan lent itself superbly to the concept we came up with.

Having decided that simply choosing a play with a cast of two would not fulfil the criteria of the course, and being familiar with plays such as Jean Genet's The Maids, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, we developed the idea of using two minor characters to provide the narrative of the play and Parker and Rosalie in Lady Windermere's Fan suited the specifications perfectly. The plot itself is completely distanced from these two characters who are essentially devices used to show the upper class status of the household and introduce certain characters and support the ideas already developed. The society Wilde presents in this drama is so open to criticism by these two characters with all the secrets and lies the audience are allowed to witness, why might we not assume that the servants too are also aware of the deception?

The characters are not developed in any way: Rosalie does not even appear until Act Four, and Parker merely enters and exits announcing guests or querying household duties, adding more to the play's context than its plot. We used the characters' lines as a starting point in our piece; using them to create the character of a servant within the period and creating movements based on each line. Using these simple, stylised movements we experimented by enlarging them, or making them more timid and tiny, and then also playing them with a certain attitude, such as scorn, joviality, devious, and drunk. From these initial experimentations based solely on the lines of the two characters we began to gauge a sense of characterisation of these two parts.

Having developed the parts, we needed to use them to tell the story and divided responsibility for each Act between the two members of the course and our tutor. Rob devised a plan for Act One based around using video clips selected from a 1916 silent film version of the play and a 1985 BBC version. As Parker Rob would be spying on the events occurring in Lady Windermere's sitting room as she was attended by guests, Lord Darlington, the Duchess of Berwick and Agatha, and her husband. All four parts were to be played by myself, dressed in a key item    of   clothing   for  each character (Agatha was represented by an umbrella held by the Duchess), entering and exiting the house via our Green Room and entering the sitting room by walking behind the projection screen, where I would be replaced by either film's version of that scene.

For Act Two, I decided to work with the idea that Rosalie and Parker were clearing up debris after the party, and that to make it more effective, we were to imply that it had been a masquerade ball and re-enact the events of the evening using each characters' discarded mask to represent that character and we would see the two servants finishing off the champagne and mocking the frivolities of the upper classes. By choosing this method we were able to produce a shortened version of Act Two which still encapsulated the sense of fun and mockery which Wilde himself creates. By including Agatha and Mr Hopper's lines alongside a selection of the Duchess's to emphasise her enthusiasm for the two becoming a couple, for example, we were not only able to follow the narrative but create depth to the personalities of both the two servants as well as the more prevalent characters, establishing a similar sense of the cultural and social context which Wilde had worked to create.

Frances intended her version of Act  Three  to be a stylised mixture of lines used in a similar manner to that of Act Two, but with Parker entering with a tinkling tray of glasses as if the men were entering. In order to make it more of a contrast to the previous Act however we focused on making it more surreal and produced a slightly schizophrenic version whereby Rosalie, played by myself, voiced both Lady Windermere, using a white-feathered fan close to her face, and Mrs Erlynne, by moving the fan away from her. Only a few key lines were spoken during this scene, which featured the two actors lit in a spotlight against the projector screen, with Parker facing the back until he began muttering to suggest the voices for the men as they entered, again only speaking a few words and fragments of phrases. Rosalie used her apron to show the women hiding whilst the fan was dropped to the floor. The lines selected for this scene were short and succinct, but captured beautifully the concern of the characters and the poetry of Wilde's writing, with lines such as ÔYou are on the brink of a hideous precipice', highlighting the melodrama of the plot.

Act Four was written by Frances and based on interviews we had created for Ôourselves' as the actors playing these small parts within Lady Windermere's Fan. These interviews were recorded and placed either side of Act Three to give additional context for Act Four.  In  Rob's  interview he eventually admits that he realises his part is insignificant and expresses his desire to play Lord Darlington. In my interview, however, I appear oblivious to how small a part I play and delude myself into thinking I have more worth than I actually do. These set up Act Four brilliantly as, during Rosalie's first and only entrance onto the stage, I then get sacked for trying to make the part more than it is by Frances, acting as director and sat in the audience. Whilst Rob attempts to carry on by himself in Act Four he realises he has only a feather duster as a prop, and no fan, and is attempting to describe his own part within the plot when I re-enter, as Ômyself' but dressed up like a leading lady and carrying the fan. Rob and I proceed to have a conversation reminiscent of that which Mrs Erlynne has in Act Four with the Windermeres, but with new references to different forms of theatre and the various opportunities these offer to an actor. I eventually leave, and Rob once again continues to try and continue the play until he too runs out of the theatre and a silent film is played of Rob chasing me down the street and we are seen reconciling and walking off together to look for better parts – maybe parts that we have ourselves created. Lady Windermere's Fan was an ideal choice for us as it enabled us to play with subverting the focus on characters within a play, yet still allowed us both to tell the story  and  create a contemporary work in response, No Small Parts. Wilde's narrative and the characters he created are so vivid and entertaining and the language he used so enthralling that to select text from the play and create bold characters from snippets of the script was a thoroughly enjoyable task and the piece which we were able to make still encapsulated a similar sense of fun to that which Wilde demonstrates in his plays.

 

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