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A Woman of No Importance

by on 17 September 2019

More haste, less speed

A Woman of No Importance

by Oscar Wilde

Classic Spring Theatre Company, Richmond Theatre, until 21st September

Review by Matthew Grierson

What is important in A Woman of No Importance – apart, of course, from the eponymous Mrs Arbuthnot? If we are to believe Dominic Dromgoole’s production, it is cementing Wilde’s reputation as a wit of the first order. Most of the opening two acts play as though excerpted from a dictionary of quotations, with characters speaking apercus in the rhythm of the machinegun: each of the miscellaneous aristos seems to be seeking to outdo another by trumping a preceding bon mot.

You sense that Wilde has set it up so that we are at once bamboozled by the whirligig of lords and ladies to which we are introduced while being dazzled at their brilliance. But if ‘the clever people never listen, and the stupid people never talk’, as Mrs Allonby smartly observes, where does this leaves a speechless audience? Well, at least we’re laughing.

Importance1The pacey delivery and light tone allow the stars – of which we are reminded that there are ‘a great many’ – to shine. Isla Blair is a naturally dry and authoritative Lady Caroline, and holds court for much of the first half of the play by looking up from her embroidery to issue pronouncements or reproach her husband (John Bett on amusing form as the doddery Sir John). Liza Goddard is meanwhile effortlessly genial as hostess Lady Hunstanton, a character unflappable other than when failed by her own memory. The most impish and impressive of these important women is Mrs Allonby, in a charismatic performance by Emma Amos, swishing among the seated matriarchs and gainsaying anything that can be gainsaid – and, with the appearance of Lord Illingworth (Mark Meadows), sparking an illicit chemistry.

Importance3

In these scenes, Wilde is setting out the way women can exert the seemingly limited power society affords them. In a world sprung from words, they can exercise considerable authority to create and contest their place, and act II serves in effect as their parliament, putting the world wittily to rights in the men’s absence. Indeed, the scene would ace the Bechdel Test were it not for the fact that they are continually talking about the gents on the terrace.

a-woman-of-no-importance1With wit and wisdom to the fore, the performances of the younger women Lady Stutfield (Meg Coombs) and Hester Worsley (Georgia Landers) are somewhat overshadowed. Keyed up to appreciate the bristling dialogue, we are invited with Lady H. to patronise Hester’s earnest denunciation of English society. But as a character whose name has resonances of the Old Testament, Hester’s speech on the unequal justice meted out to sinning men and women serves as an appropriate prophecy for the subsequent arrival of Mrs Arbuthnot, the woman of no importance who is all-important to the action of the play.

Maintaining the pace of the comedy on into this drama is perhaps this production’s failing. The snappy capping of line with line is perfect for the earlier exchanges, which contain some of Wilde’s most memorable dialogue outside Earnest, but sustaining this through the confrontation between Lord Illingworth and Mrs Arbuthnot (Katy Stephens) does not give us the breathing room to appreciate the human feeling of the scene, and takes it as read that we will already have divined the nature of their relationship.

As Illingworth, Mark Meadows makes a sinuous transition from charming rake to a cold manipulator, but the rhythm of the dialogue is as though they are still trading badinage.

The juxtaposition of amusement and brutality at the end of act III risks leaving a particularly sour taste. One of the young women is sexually assaulted before the curtain suddenly falls and we are then treated to an entr’acte music hall song. I can see that what Dromgoole might intend with this interpolation – one of the ‘cheap entertainments’ Lady Hunstanton would afford the poor to divert from the very inequities to which Hester wants us to attend. As a comment on society it’s as troublingly relevant now as it was when Wilde wrote, but at the same time the play needs to do more to distinguish these issues from the pacey handling of the more comic scenes.

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A note of praise at this point all the same for the marvellous Roy Hudd. He’s a fine comic turn in the play proper as Reverend Daubney, forever reciting a litany of his wife’s maladies, but he also breaks the fourth wall between acts to sing the jaunty numbers of the below-stairs ensemble, drawing on his venerable variety experience to bring these to life.

As we move into the final act there is no let-up in the relentless pace of the drama, though. Katy Stephens not only gives a bravura speech about bearing and bringing up Gerald – something that belongs alongside any words of Wilde’s we’ve committed to memory – but sees off the no-good father of her child before throwing herself onto the couch as though ready to weep. Nary a beat later, however, she is revived by the return of her son and his new fiancée. Give her a break, Dom.

It’s a happy ending, certainly, but it short-circuits any relief we might feel at Mrs Arbuthnot’s redemption, and likewise Hester’s sudden conversion from Biblical morality to a more compassionate worldview. The play has much to say that remains urgent, but needn’t be so urgent in doing so.

Matthew Grierson
September 2019

Photography by Robert Day

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