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Mrs Langtry as Hester Grazebrook

by on 2 July 2020

Waxing Lyrical

Mrs Langtry as Hester Grazebrook

by Oscar Wilde

Teddington Theatre Club, zoomed until 28th June, then on-line on YouTube

Review by Mark Aspen

If we were to present the review below at Mark Aspen Reviews as written by Oscar Wilde, you probably would smell a rat.  Since Wilde died 120 years ago, at best we could present it as late copy, lost in the post probably.

Wilde wrote the piece in New York, where the famous beauty of the time, Jersey-born Lily Langtry, a favourite of the then Prince of Wales, had her American acting debut.  It was 6th November 1882 and she played Hester Grazebrook in An Unequal Match by English biographer and critic Tom Taylor, who for a short while was editor of Punch.  Most critics put in mixed reviews, but the public loved Lily Langtry, mainly for her exquisite looks rather than her acting skills it seems.  A newspaper reported, “It is perhaps needless to add that the floral contributions between the acts were at once many and rich, one piece seven or eight feet in height, and surmounted by a dove, being so massive that it was wrecked in being hoisted to the stage and taken therefrom.”  The report added dryly, “It was afterwards patched up and used in the drawing-room scene.”  Nevertheless, it was quite a coup for the now long defunct Wallack’s Theatre.

Wallack's Theatre

Wilde too was clearly smitten, and his review is in a more decorated style than the most effusive of Mark Aspen’s effulgent reviewers.  Verging on the purple, it reads more like a review of the visual arts than of the dramatic.

After 138 years since Lily Langtry’s performance it might be thought that Wilde’s review had become a little passé at best, or fragilely desiccated at worse, but this does not count for the beautiful reading skills of Clare Cooper, who resurrected Oscar Wilde’s Mrs Langtry as Hester Grazebrook in all its glory.  And this really is glorious prose: those owls, insomniacs and aficionados who tuned-in, in the small hours of Sunday morning during Teddington Theatre Club’s marathon extravaganza Wilde Weekend, were rewarded with a real treat.

Clare Cooper had taken great care to create the right atmosphere.  A gentle backlight behind and a flickering candle in the foreground set an intimate ambience that complemented her finely chiselled delivery of the prose.  Every syllable was clearly delineated with just the right weight, bringing life into phrases such as “flower-like in laughter”, “moonlight wandering in silver mist” and “tremulous as a bird’s wing”.  Prose became poetry.

Helen of TroyThis is great stuff, but what about Wilde as a drama critic?  Almost two-thirds of his piece waxes lyrical about Lily Langtry’s looks, of over three-quarters if you include how well she wore her frocks.  The rest is a critique of the scenery.  It starts to look like an art critic’s review tinged with the erudite touch of a classicist.  (There is a nice oblique reference to Helen of Troy.)  However, we do get a little gripe, that may chime with today, when he begins “quarrel generally with most modern scene-painting”, that it threatens to take over the show.

Wilde would not however, one feels, quarrel with Clare Cooper’s exposition of his work.  The subtle setting was “kept subordinate” and she excelled at “mingling of classic grace with absolute reality”.   It was pity that the programming of Wilde Weekend buried this piece in the dead of night, but then again we would have lost the atmosphere of that hour.

Mark Aspen, June 2020

Photography by Robert Talbot and Jane Morgan

Mrs Langtry as Hester Grazebrook may be seen on YouTube as part of Wilde Weekend (at 10hrs 26mins)

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