Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Dominic Dromgoole
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
Finding itself deep in Wilde’s portfolio of writing, A Woman of No Importance finds itself a lesser-known, though by no mean less accomplished, piece. Dominic Dromgoole’s adaption of Wilde’s satirical take on vice, gender and expectations is an accessible piece, with a razor wit Wilde himself would find pride in.
In one part a witticism of commentary on immoral men, and their already outdated thoughts on women – another, a look at our obsessions with the English aristocracy, a prevailing interest to this day. A Woman of No Importance, or Mrs Arbuthnot, is the woman who finds herself at a dinner party with the worst possible guest – A man who ran out on her, following her pregnancy, after vowing to marry her.
With Isla Blair working off of John Bett or Emma Amos, there’s little wonder why we love Downton or Upstairs, Downstairs. Her chemistry with Bett, playing husband Sir John is so ridiculous in how effective their humour is. All three have quick one-liners, running gags and suggestive nods typical of Wilde, selling them with mirthful conviction.
A prevailing adoration for the original, there’s a distinct level of respect for Wilde’s work – both to great effect and detriment. Chiefly enabling performers to have a grasp of their character, making an impression. Particularly, the marvellous Liza Goddard’s Lady Hunstanton holds court without question. Her projection, accomplishing control of the stage, never feels heavy-handed. An effortless ability with comedy, her dry delivery is scathing when required.
In reverse, there’s a severe issue with a less natural delivery, forcing the production to feel like a series of proclamations. It removes momentum, which, in an already slow-burner, snaps us from investment. Addressing the American in the room, Georgia Landers finds herself on the wedged between performers with a livelier sense of flow. There’s a hollowness to the lines of Wilde, a strange resonance where there is no clout to the words spoken, one-liners or decrees of dialogue rile off as if she were dictating, lacking in emotion.
Occasionally, when all the pieces fall into place, production slots into the aesthetics of a theatre, amplifying the effect of the show. Jonathan Fensom’s design finds itself so comfortably on stage at the King’s Theatre, it transforms each aspect. It gives a gravitas which would be lost on other stages, blending into the theatre’s architecture dapperly.
As the set dressing finds a firm footing, one cannot say the same of the stage direction. Bursts of energy, aggression otherwise unknown to the production, is handled in a clumsy manner which detracts any tension which may have been growing. Kate Stephens performance is marvellous but feels at odds with other tonal decisions. A defiant woman, her bursts of passionate anger are, ironically, akin to hysteria given the louche performances on offer from others. Her direction is effective, but only if taken out of context from the rest of the cast.
A raging pump of fresh blood keeps theatre above water, but we mustn’t forget the base root productions and writers like Wilde who paved the way. Despite its status as a turn of the century classic, there is little old-fashioned about the text. A Woman of No Importance’s prevalence permeates into society despite its age, in a world still defined by gender, or ‘nasty women’ is distressing.
Runs until 5 October 2019 then continues touring | Image: Contributed