A Woman of No Importance at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh (Tue 01 to Sat 05 Oct) brings with a hugely experienced cast one of the last of Oscar Wilde’s great plays to the stage and the visual look of the last years of the Victorian age as many of its most cherished institutions come under the satirical examination.
In this production from “Classic Spring Theatre Company”, director Dominic Dromgoole faces the unenviable task that all of this type of production faces for me, and that is no matter how well you do the work it can only really be done in one of two ways – either as a straight period piece (as done here) or an update, which rarely works too well in any setting. The problem is that “A Woman of No Importance” is very much of its time, and its time has long gone, and it is all too often more than a little window opening on a very privileged upper level of society that even at the time was probably a mixture of fantasy and reality.
The other problem with this work, and the one there is no escaping from, is that despite the sharp satire of Oscar Wilde’s words challenging the very foundation corner-stones of Victorian society and morality, we are now looking back at a time over 100 years ago and our views on so many things have changed now.
We also have the hindsight of knowing perhaps more about Oscar Wilde’s personal life than many people at the time would have known (this work in 1895 was just before his scandalous trial and imprisonment for two years). We can now perhaps see things in this work that are perhaps only more visible with the view of hindsight. For me, there are clear moments here where the author is speaking through characters his own feeling, but obviously masking them through the words of a woman, disguising the fact that this is a man speaking about his own relationships with other men. Somehow though, I doubt if audiences of the time would have missed many of these clues – perhaps that was more of the appeal to this work than we give it credit for,
From a dialogue perspective, this work is for the most part very much a woman’s play. It is the women who are clearly in control here, they are just clever enough to let their men think they are in control, and with Liza Goddard (Lady Hunstanton), Emma Amos (Miss Allonby) and Isla Blair (Lady Caroline Pontefract) as our main trio, the interaction between them, coupled with Wilde’s dialogue, was always going to be faultless.
Most of our attack on English society comes from our American guest, Georgia Landers as Miss Hester Worsley and it is interesting to me that here, Oscar Wilde stills puts himself on safe ground by choosing to have the most direct criticism of society coming from an American “outsider” and not someone in “high society”. Georgia Landers has some fine dialogue here, but there is a times an uneasy stiffness to some of her scenes on stage, but when you balance her stage experience in the programme information against many of the other actors in this production there is an obvious imbalance. Working with a cast with this level of experience is going to be such a learning opportunity for Georgia in how to improvise beyond the script.
Oscar Wilde’s script is deliberately playing with stereotypes here and that by its very nature restricts some of what this hugely talented cast can do with their characters, but Katy Stephens as Mrs Arbuthnot is outstanding in her role here and so much of this production in terms of emotional depth and reality belongs to her.
Perhaps just as interesting as her character being outside of “Polite Society”, there is a clear distinction between the way Mrs Arbuthnot dresses and the other women around her. Here, costume designer Jonathan Fensom has clearly identified this woman by her looser fitting clothing and loose hairstyle as a woman of the “Arts & Crafts” aesthetic movement, and perhaps this is also reflected in her personal views too. This is in clear contrast to the far more formal hairstyles and corseted dresses of all of the other women,
The men in this story of course do not escape Wilde’s wit either, but the only one with any opportunity to more depth to his character is Mark Meadows as the immediately unlikable and self-centred Lord Illingworth, and Mark is obviously having some fun here with a character who simply could not exist in our modern #MeToo world.
While I appreciate that the musical interludes between scenes with Roy Hudd as The Reverend Daubeny are entirely in keeping with the period style of the main story, they were just lost on me – sorry folks.
You could analyse A Woman of No Importance at great length (and many have already done so), but ultimately it comes over all too often as the work of someone who truly believed in the higher values of “The Arts” but somehow forgot that very few people had the opportunity to enjoy that elevation of the human spirit and that even if by some miracle everyone could be “enlightened and elevated”, who would do all the dirty and unpleasant jobs that were required to keep society functioning, jobs that the enlightened certainly did not want to do. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy” – I hear a song coming on from somewhere!
Review by Tom King