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Constance

Oscar Wilde, reconstructed by Guillot de Saix & Henri de Briel, adapted by Charles Osborne
Good Night Out Presents
King's Head Theatre
(2011)

Constance production photo

This production is billed as 'the world premier of Oscar Wilde's Constance' but, as readers of The Guardian and Mark Shenton's blog in The Stage will know, there is some contention as to whether he actually wrote any of it. The programme quotes an introduction Montgomery Hyde wrote for the publication of a play by Frank Harris called Mr and Mrs Daventry based on a scenario he bought from Wilde that was produced at the Royalty Theatre in 1900 and the programme is slipped with a chronology that outlines the history of the piece as outlined by Montgomery Hyde, the translators and Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland.

Apart from the title pair, Harris's play has a different set of characters and significant differences in plot and dialogue. Wilde certainly seems to have written a synopsis and promised the play or sold the scenario to several different people. American actress Cora Brown-Porter eventually received a script, or at least a developed scenario, that it is claimed passed into the hands of French dramatist de Saix who, with de Briel, produced and published what was described as a French translation. It is that translated back into English and adapted by Charles Osborne which is here given its stage premier.

The document on which the "translation" was claimed to be based no longer exists for comparison or graphological investigation. Was it genuine? If it was, then how much of Wilde could survive this double "translation"?

Is this pastiche or is this Wilde? In that, of course, lies part of the interest of this production. It is reason enough for wanting to see it. I am no Wilde expert, so I'll leave you to decide. More importantly, is it worth seeing for itself?

This has the feel of a work in progress. If the author were around I feel sure the director would be asking for some cuts and rewrites and a little extra polishing but I found it an enjoyable evening. There is an artificiality about the production that comes partly from the speed with which it ricochets from social satire to melodrama and a final sunshine ending, and partly from a tendency to claim it for Wilde by the use of cadences that, since Gielgud and Evans played the Importance, so many thespians have seen as the way to play him, though this sense of identity gives a perverse pleasure in itself. I kept getting a sense of déjà vu. There are elements of the plot that seem over-familiar and certainly the dialogue includes recycling of Wilde epigrams and aphorisms from elsewhere - or something very like them.

It's a story of a pure young wife and an unfaithful husband only interested in himself, and a devoted and handsome aristocratic lover. Throw in a deranged churchman and his whorish wife, an aristocratic widow who loves the cleric (though it is difficult to see why) and a delightful pair of the old nobility who, though at first going along with a satire on social attitudes turn out to be totally unpriggish romantics, some temperamental tirades, sobs and screaming, and you have something that might have been any formulaic play of its period except that it does have a Wilde-like view of the society presented

Bart Edwards, in his first professional appearance since leaving drama school, is charming as the romantic hero, if sometimes a little out of his depth among the impassioned playing of some of his colleagues. James Vaughan pulls all the stops out as demon Daventry, the industrialist who has married into the aristocracy, and Ellie Beaven is charming as his wife, the oh-so-perfect Constance, while Bradley Cole makes Rev George Preston a very serious character indeed.

Tamara Hinchco and John Atterbury as a duchess and her oldest friend are quite delightful, out of a different world from the others and aware of it. They are people performing themselves until the final scenes when they really come to life, though to aim for a cheap laugh by sending Atterbury's Sir Richard off to return into a comic outfit seemed below any writer or director, let alone Wilde. I'm not surprised it didn't even get a chuckle.

It is all a bit of a hotch potch but the enthusiasm of the cast is infectious and I enjoyed it. The self-consciously high style of the playing would have worked better in a more expansive setting, The opening scenes, set against a stylised backing had a sense of period that helped but later scenes attempting to move towards more naturalistic interiors were a disaster, another way in which director Marc Urquhart might have benefitted from less being more effective.

"Constance" runs at the King's Head until 22nd October 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton