Of the four plays which make up the main thrust of Oscar Wilde’s successful dramatic work A Woman Of No Importance is probably the least performed and the least well known. Watching Classic Spring Company’s 2017 production I cannot say I am entirely surprised.
That is not to say that there is anything particularly wrong with the production. Indeed, it has its moments but the writing itself veers from social comedy to polemic to melodrama and it is thus very hard for the director (Dominic Dromgoole) and a highly competent cast to find a consistent tone. The start of the play is particularly at fault with extended scenes of the minor aristocracy lounging around at a country house party exchanging witty aphorisms and preventing the plot from getting going. Oscar’s original director really should have had a quiet word with the playwright about editing! It is about fifty minutes and an act and a half in before “woman with a past” Mrs Rachel Arbuthnot – who, just like Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan turns out to be at the centre of the play – makes an entrance. When she does the whole piece takes off, at least for a while, and this is almost entirely due to the luminous performance of Eve Best. Here is an actress who evokes sympathy for her character’s plight but who does so by showing Rachel’s depth of determination to protect her son at all costs even if it means deceiving him. Best’s emotional intensity really hits home in the final third of the play and we can only conjecture why Wilde left her out of the picture for so long in the first half.
Dominic Rowan as Lord Illingworth is suitably caddish but also reveals depths of feeling as he comes to learn that his son is closer to him than he realised. He also has some of the author’s wittiest lines but perhaps delivers these with rather too knowing an air – while they are famous lines to us, they are supposed to be newly minted thoughts for the character. I couldn’t decide whether I admired Harry Lister Smith’s portrayal of Gerald or not. I think this may have been down to some questionable dialogue and the constant use of “Mother” in every speech as though the character needed to reassure himself that this indeed is who Rachel is. I found Eleanor Bron’s sweetly smiling but ultimately bullying Lady Caroline rather one note; ditto Crystal Clarke who struggles to make anything of the priggish Hester. Overseeing the house party is Lady Hunstanton played by Anne Reid. She delivers her dialogue well and thankfully resists the temptation to play the character as Lady Bracknell lite. Reid also gets to deliver several moralising Victorian parlour songs which cover the various set changes but these add little to the performance – other than length. It also has to be said that Reid is an infinitely better actor than she is vocalist.
The set itself is very well realised by designer Jonathan Fensom with three distinct locations provided; in the printed text there are actually four, but Classic Spring cannot be blamed for economising. At times though it seemed the stage was rather over-crowded, especially when those extra characters dotted about are adding little to the plot. The costumes, as expected, are sumptuous and bring the period vividly to life.
I had not seen this particular Wilde play before and I am glad to have made its acquaintance even if it clearly is the runt of the litter. Dromgoole and his cast have done what they can with an uneven piece which gives a glimpse into the social hypocrisy of the time and raises some issues that are still pertinent today. In the end though, it is too concerned with surfaces and the precise placing of witticisms; Oscar’s desire to promote artifice triumphs over his stage craft. As Lady Hunstanton puts it: “There was a great deal of truth; I dare say, in what you said, and you looked very pretty while you said it, which is much more important.”
A Woman Of No Importance (along with the rest of Classic Spring’s Wilde season) is available via Marquee TV. This is a subscription service, but they currently have a thirty-day free trial offer. My review of Lady Windermere’s Fan is here.
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