DramaReviewSouth East

A Woman of No Importance – Norwich Theatre Royal

Writer: Oscar Wilde

Director: Dominic Dromgoole

Reviewer: Lu Greer

A Woman of No Importance, a satire of English Upper-Class Society is perhaps one of Wilde’s lesser-known works; telling the story of an earnest young American woman, an unscrupulous English lord, and an innocent young Irish chap attending a party at a lavish countryside estate it certainly has the potential, in being viewed by a modern audience, to be seen as a historical relic and nothing more. However, with Wilde’s typical style of examining the realities of society with a razor wit, what we are actually presented with is a play examining gender expectations in society and the treatment of women; a theme which is every bit as relevant today.

The focus of the play is on the unravelling story between Mrs Arbuthnot (Kate Stephens) and Mr Illingworth (Mark Meadows); whose affair and his subsequent abandonment led to the birth of Gerald and a life of difficulties and hardships as she tries to give her son an air of respectability. Stephen’s Mrs Arbuthnot is at times a rather jarring portrayal as her somewhat loud and intense delivery sit at odds with the rest of the cast; although, of course, with the character being forced apart from the rest of society there is a logic to this choice. Opposite this, Meadows’s Mr Illingworth is almost a caricature of the cunning arch rogue, delivering Wilde’s punchlines with a flourish and a smirk and showing just enough of the character’s menace to give away his true nature.

It is in the side characters that the play particularly comes alive though, with Isla Blair as the overbearing Lady Caroline Pontefract creating an exasperating and uncomfortable character who brings Wilde’s lines to life, alongside her long-suffering husband John (John Bett) whose comedy timing is exemplary.

One of the high points, and low points, of this tour, comes from the reverence for Wilde’s work. Wilde’s snipes and witticisms are revealed in throughout, which at times allows for some excellent comedic timing, but at other points just telegraphs the punchline long before we hear it, to the extent that it occasionally feels like an in-joke that the audience are almost external to. The delivery itself mirrors this unevenness, with some sudden bursts of energy which detract from the carefully built tension, particularly in the final act.

The delivery of this play does at times leave something to be desired; with it seemingly being geared towards diehard fans of Wilde’s every word and giving a somewhat uneven performance, which runs the risk of passing by potential new-comers. What makes it genuinely worth seeing though, is the content of the play itself. It is a show which genuinely has something to say about gender bias and forces its audience to stop and think; something which is, somewhat astoundingly, just as important today as when it was written.

Runs until 9 November 2019 | Image: Contributed

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