Why Wilde is relevant to #MeToo
The West End’s latest revival of an Oscar Wilde classic about gender equality is bang-on topical. It also has several Irish people, or people of Irish descent, involved in the production, as Dublin actor David O’Reilly tells Michael McDonagh.
Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan is four act comedy first performed on 22 February 1892 at the St James Theatre in London. Like many of Wilde’s comedies, it is a biting satire on the morals of Victorian society, particularly marriage. As such it has a particular relevance to the current pubic discourse about sexual harassment.
It is part of Classic Spring’s yearlong celebration of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre and directed by none other than Kathy Burke and stars Jennifer Saunders and Kevin Bishop.
Young Dublin actor David O’Reilly, from Ballyfermot, was hand picked by director Kathy Burke to play a supporting character in her production of the Oscar Wilde classic Lady Windermere’s Fan despite his – or even because of – his scant knowledge of either the writer or the play.
The only other play in which he had performed was when he was at college. (Full disclosure – he is an experienced musical theatre performer,having had a major role in the musical The Book of Mormon until just before Christmas).
So just how did he get the part?
“I have known Kathy since 2009, as her friend directed that play that I was in at college and she had come to Ireland to see it, so that’s when we met and she would only ever come to see The Book of Mormon when I was on for the lead, so I knew her out of it but I did not know what to expect.
“Everybody knows Kathy Burke for being loud with that London accent swearing a lot but in fact she is the most maternal person you could ever wish to meet. She is the kindest and most refreshing person to work with and direct.
“When we started she read out some lines from a poem, Keep love in your heart/A life without it is like a sunless garden/ when the flowers are dead and that, keeping love in her heart, is Kathy all over.
“She knew I would be leaving The Book Of Mormon at the end of January but I got a text from her one night in my dressing room – I thought she just wanted tickets but she didn’t – it was an availability check asking was I still tied up with it.
“At this point I had no idea they were doing a year long Oscar Wilde season here and I had no idea that Kathy would be directing Lady Windermere’s Fan. It wasn’t until the next day that she told me she was doing this and she had a script and said this is where it was going.
“Of course I said ‘My goodness I’m interested.’ I read the script and I looked at the character break down and I thought Cecil Graham was the only one maybe that would be right for me and it turned out it was him for whom she wanted me.
“So I said do you want me to read for you and she just said ‘oh no I know what you can do’, so that was it.
“I got the job and I then asked could I leave The Book of Mormon early and the producer Sonia Freidman very kindly let me go. I left Mormon on the 2nd of December and started rehearsals on the 4th of December.”
It takes a certain amount of courage and or confidence to change or alter Wilde’s original work and Kathy Burke has made some alterations: “She has abridged it as she felt there was some repetition with some characters in the original text and she introduced a new character, Mr Hopper, who is only in Act Two going into Act Three but it is now very hard to imagine him not being there originally. She put him in just to add a little extra.
“She has also written a song for Jennifer Saunders (The Duchess of Berwick) which is like an old music hall song called Don’t Touch My Fan, Sir, so it is very current and reflects the recent times with issues about consent.
“She has been very cautious, though, making sure that everything reflects Oscar Wilde.
“You may not see it but every costume has an element of pink to reflect his homosexuality. Wilde was writing all this stuff that was so supportive of women, which this play is about, with this song performed by comedy genius Jenifer Saunders.
“It is in keeping with Wilde and he would have loved it. The song should be heard beyond the play, maybe at (West End Theatre Awards) The Oliviers, it is so topical.”
How does he feel to be an Irishman in a play by a revered Irishman?
“I must admit that I was not familiar with Wilde or his work but everybody knows who he is and at the end of The Strand there is a coffin shaped memorial with the line We are all in the gutter/ But some of us are looking at the stars which, of course, is a line from this play but I did not even know it was in this play.
“I was very ignorant of his work. When I went into the rehearsal room it was very apparent that Kathy was doing everything in his honour, so I felt that as an Irishman that I was doing the same.
“Kathy, herself, has an Irish background she was born in Camden to Irish immigrant parents. The production manager Patrick Molony is an Irishman, the lighting designer Paul Keinan is an Irishman. He left me a note last night that said ‘We have done Wilde proud’, which was lovely. Kathy cares so much about this show it is a real love letter to Wilde, it will open Wilde up to people across the board.
“It was refreshing last night to hear somebody who was in to see it say they were so inspired that they said they were going to go off and buy more of Wilde’s plays just to go and read them.”.
Is the play really that relevant to today?
“It is because we live in a time in which gossip and scandal are what makes the news. We have great talented designers and writers and actors who can walk down the street and nobody knows them but somebody who sh*gs somebody on Love Island is front page news.
“When Wilde wrote the play there was no social media but gossip was very significant in his society ‘who’s sleeping with whom? Whose daughter will be married off to whom? and who has the most money?’
“This play sits under the bubble of scandal that can ruin people’s lives, especially the women.
“It is all about misunderstandings that arise because nobody sits down and friggin’ talks and it is all about society and the positions held within it.
“There was a lot of pressure in those days to behave in a certain way and the women were powerless, as they did not have the vote or rights.
“Now we have women’s marches happening all around the world in retaliation to recent accusations and events. So this play is so pro woman and so pro a modern perception of women and where it needs to go and also so pro-Wilde in all his themes about women.
“That’s why it is current and that’s why it is so important. He is so witty and I am very lucky as I get to say a lot of his witticisms, I get to say the put-downs.
“My character, Cecil is a git. He comes in and says hello to Lord Windermere then he is straight at it and comes out like a racing car at the start of a grand prix race.
“He is off with a put down here and a put down there ‘Hello Tubby’ then a put down, then on over here and another one and Act Three is my favourite as he is like a snake with venom but all the while he believes it is just banter.
“But he is not afraid to say things. Actually, he causes the biggest drama and causes the biggest hurt of all the characters and he does not even realise it, when he thinks it is just some woman’s fan he has found not knowing the impact of who it really belongs to.”
So how did he end up on the stage for a living?
“I was born in Dublin, my parents were from Ballyfermot they were from a large family there then we went to live in Tallaght then we moved to Lucan. I went to a community school at first but when we moved I went to Choláiste Phádraig, which had been run by Chistian Brothers but there were no Brothers left when I was there, thank God. Ireland is still reeling from all the revelations and scandals in the past and the cruelty of it.
“In Lucan I joined the performing Arts School called West Side Arts and then I went to the Ballyfermot College of FE to study a General Media course and it was brilliant.
“Some people turn their noses up at going on to Further Education Colleges because it’s not Trinity or Maynooth but they do courses in film and animation and performance and presentation at Ballyfermot and are brilliant.
“Then I got an opportunity to audition in Dublin for a college in Essex, a musical theatre college. As I had my Diploma from Ballyfermot I said to my parents I think I might want to do this and go into the theatre world full time.
“They said ‘Why not go for it?’ and they supported me and I did three years Musical Theatre training at Collins Performing Arts and I graduated it 2010 and then in 2011 I got the part of Roger in Grease at the Piccadilly Theatre off the back of that TV series they had done looking for a Sandy and Danny and it was the final contract and I did that.
“When it finished I did a musical play called Bluebird at a fringe theatre above The Stag. It was set in wartime and I sang in that and I had also had a big song in Grease and then I went back on tour with Grease for a year.
“Then I was out of work for just a few weeks but went for an audition for Book of Mormon and got called back for another one then another one then I was offered the job.
“I went to the rehearsal and the rest of the cast had already been there for three days but I started in 2013 and stayed in it till December 2017.
“It was nearly five years. I started off as a standby before doing a lead so was not on every night at first but was in the building, which allowed me to do other things like appearing in Benidorm and a cartoon for Disney.”
Do most young Irish actors need to leave Ireland and focus on London to develop their careers?
“ Certainly when I started there was no option if I wanted to work in Musical Theatre and work in productions that were of value.
“I’m not saying the productions in Dublin were not good but there were so few opportunities, so they were not of the big scale that they were here.
“Now there are incredible opportunities in Irish Theatre as there are new artistic directors at both The Gate and The Abbey with some great people looking after these buildings and now there is a real bubble of excitement.
“But there is no Musical Theatre training in Ireland that matches the quality of the training you can get here, which is why so many Irish actors come over. We don’t realise just how many Irish actors do come over here…many of them are doing great work.
“Irish people have no inhibitions about taking risk and are not afraid so that provides them with a chance to expose themselves to take chances that others may not and to learn from it. “Grace Molony (pictured) from this cast is stunningly beautiful and is great in the part and is of Irish descent, Kevin Bishop (Lord Darlington) is of Irish descent.
“I do think there is something about Irish actors who are not afraid to throw themselves into the challenge and it works.
“(But) the acting training institutions here in this country are a really good grounding – Samantha Spiro who plays Mrs Erlynne is fantastic, she went to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art – we just don’t have places like that in Ireland yet.”