Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Dominic Dromgoole
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
A Woman of No Importance has been described as one of Oscar Wilde’s lesser works. Certainly, it has never tapped into the public consciousness the way that The Importance of Being Earnest has done, nor has it introduced such engaging metaphorical concepts as the eponymous portrait in the attic in The Picture of Dorian Gray. But in its withering look at the gendered reactions to the misbehaviour of the idle rich, it has much still to say.
This touring version of Dominic Dromgoole’s 2017 production, which kicked off a year-long season of Wilde works in the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre, often seems more in thrall to Wilde’s ever-quotable one-liners than to the deeper meaning behind them. It’s an easy trap to fall into, for it does contain some marvellous witticisms (although, for some reason, Dromgoole felt the need to add the couplet “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his” from The Importance of Being Earnest, in an unnecessary if thematically fitting manner).
But this adoration of the text does mean that some actors develop a tendency to proclaim their dialogue in a manner so arch that it signals the presence of a punch line well in advance. While such a delivery just about works in the mouths of Emma Amos’s Mrs Allonby or Mark Meadows’s roguish Lord Illingworth, both of whom are putting on shows for the men and women assembled at the home of Lady Hunstanton (Liza Goddard), elsewhere it somewhat diminishes the satirical power of Wilde’s script, which is quite arch enough without such delivery.
One actor who gets the delivery spot-on is Isla Blair, whose Lady Caroline Pontefract is able to get across Wilde’s humour with a manned of righteous disdain that never feels forced.
But these side characters, while enjoyable, are secondary to the main story of Tim Gibson’s young Gerald, about to employed by Meadows’s Illingworth to the regret of his mother (Katy Stephens). That Gerald was conceived from an affair between the two, and Illingworth’s subsequent abandonment of his mother, gives the play its contemporary bite. Having to bear the shame of an illegitimate son alone, Mrs Arbuthnot has been forced to assume the black velvet robes of a widow in a pretence designed to allow her son to assume at least some small air of respectability.
Stephens blasts across the stage from her first appearance, her booming delivery often seeming to belong to a different production altogether. The jarring style just about works, though, especially as her character is so detached from the society her son is so eager to join.
Georgia Landers’s American interloper Hester Worsley, whose sense of moral outrage at the fecklessness of English society mirrors Mrs Arbuthnot’s, helps to highlight the damaging lassitudes of the assembled men and women. “You are unjust to women in England,” she declares, “and till you count what is a shame in a woman to be an infamy in a man, you will always be unjust.”
Wilde’s depiction of a world where immoral men are welcomed, and the women whose lives they ruin are treated with scorn and shame, should not feel as prescient today as it does. But here we are, and we still live in a world where the gendered world of A Woman of No Importancestill resonates. This production may lack a certain something in style, but its message rings clear and true.
Continues until 21 September 2019 | Image: contributed