Photo: David Cooper. A Woman of No Importance.
It seemed welcome news when the Shaw Festival announced that it would be tackling Oscar Wilde’s A Woman Of No Importance this season. One hoped that the festival would be redressing the wrong done this play in a previous production in 2004. After all, this current revival would be in the capable hands of Eda Holmes, a director responsible for some of the finest moments in the festival’s history.
How quickly can one’s high expectations be dashed. The production now on view at the Festival Theatre seems intent on baring the play’s weaknesses and diluting its strengths. It’s hard to be believe that the same director who unveiled a brilliant production of Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession in May could follow up with such a mish-mash.
To be sure, A Woman Of No Importance has long been considered the slightest and most problematic of Wilde’s plays. It begins with an extended upper-class gathering, the sort of situation that allowed the playwright to indulge himself with barbed and witty epigrams about society. But it’s a scene fraught with hazards — the most immediate of which is the challenge of keeping the endless talk, talk, talk from turning static.
So we can certainly embrace the ever dependable Fiona Reid for her determination to bring shape and substance to the character of Lady Hunstanton, the tart-tongued but often muddle-headed aristocrat who’s hosting the party. Her very body language speaks entitlement, and when it comes to insinuating vocal inflections, she’s a match for Maggie Smith. There’s a moment when Reid observes that “politics are in a sad way everywhere — they certainly are in England.” The comment is relevant enough to the Britain of 2016 that it will easily trigger a laugh, regardless of who might be speaking it, but Reid takes it further, ensuring it further bite because of the care with which she has been defining her character.
This is an actress who understands that Wilde requires more than arch mannerisms in performance. His characters are not just stylized mannequins making witty pronouncements about life and society — but, alas, some cast members fail to recognize this fact.
Still, in that opening scene, we can also applaud the feline venom underlying Diana Donnelly’s coldly elegant performance as the self-assured and insensitive Mrs. Allonby, and the soured comedy of Mary Haney’s Lady Caroline Pontrefact who bustles about the stage like a perpetually resentful crone. But these almost seem like individual turns. The production keeps missing the opportunity to bring more drama into that troublesome first act.
There is the potential for early conflict because of the presence of Hester Worsley, an American visitor whose own markedly different views on class and morality bring her in conflict with these loftily self-assured ladies. Wilde has given her serious things to say — but the potential of her scenes is squandered, partly because of Julia Course’s tentative performance as Hester, partly because of limp direction.
Meanwhile, you are also conscious of the fact that, notwithstanding costume designer Michael GianFrancesco’s success in evoking the elegant world of Cecil Beaton, the decision to shift the play’s setting to 1951 isn’t making sense. It merely accentuates the artifice of Wilde’s play. Furthermore it lops the legs off the dramatic crisis that emerges in the second act — a crisis that still had validity in 1893 England but far less so in the years following the Second World War.
This isn’t the only play in which Wilde exploited the fertile dramatic territory inherent in building a stage piece around “a woman with a past.” But here, he’s genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the mysterious Mrs. Arbuthnot, a loving mother with an unfortunate history. Her grown son Gerald is about to become secretary to Lord Illingworth, an aristocratic snob and unrepentant chauvinist. The thought of this happening is unbearable to Mrs. Arbuthnot because his Lordship is the man who seduced her two decades before and then refused to marry her when she became pregnant.
Mrs. Arbuthnot represents a conventional figure in Victorian melodrama — a wronged woman with a secret. There is no denying Wilde’s willingness to embrace melodramatic convention. But this play contains a serious undercurrent. There is nothing frivolous about its title, A Woman Of No Importance — that’s the dismissive phrase Illingworth applies to her when she re-enters his life after 20 years. And there’s no denying the agonizing dilemma she faces: she can’t bear the thought of this man having anything to do with her boy even though Illingworth’s patronage should ensure ensure him a golden future.
There are moral issues at stake here — also moral ambiguities. Illingworth is pretty loathsome in his view of women as dispensable objects. But Wilde has also supplied him with some delicious lines. “Nothing succeeds like excess,” he says at one point — and it’s a defining sentence. He describes fox-hunting “as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” These are lines that Wilde admirers relish — even when, on this occasion, Martin Happer, who plays Illingworth, fails to take full advantage of them.
Furthermore, even before Illingworth knows that Gerald is his son, he already cares for the boy and wants to help him into a better life. So, for all this creature’s flaws should the mother be standing in his way when he’s actually trying to do something decent?
Sadly, this production shows little interest in drawing out the complexities of this underrated but tricky play and is too ready to descend into shallow, shrieking histrionics. We’re prepared for that big moment of revelation. We know that at some point Mrs. Arbuthnot will expose Illingworth as the father of her illegitimate child. Wilde’s own stage directions for this scene subscribe to the conventions of Victorian melodrama — but it could be argued that in her direction Eda Holmes has been unnecessarily attentive to them. On opening night, this climactic moment seemed like a parody of bad melodrama. Should we be surprised that the audience laughed?
So is this a Wilde play that no longer works? One might think so, were it not for a remarkable production unveiled by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company more than two decades ago. The director was Philip Prowse, best known for his groundbreaking work with the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. Prowse’s production had its hilarious moments, but it also saw the play as a stinging indictment of bourgeois morality. You saw it at the very beginning: yes, this drawing-room bitchery was funny, but it was also underscored by nastiness.
Prowse saw the American visitor, Hester Worsley, as the play’s moral compass. Strait-laced and a bit puritanical — yes. The centrepiece of a major crisis when Illingworth tries to kiss her — undeniably so. But Hester is the consummate outsider with her own sturdy moral integrity — an integrity that surfaces in the opening act when she challenges the malicious drawing-room chatter of Lady Hunstanton and her friends.
Prowse assigned this role to a black actress — and it was not a case of colour-blind casting. This was Prowse’s way of adding a new and more serious dynamic to the production — of advancing his thesis that A Woman Of No Importance has more than frivolity on its mind.
At the Shaw, unfortunately, the play emerges as a work of little importance. The production fails to achieve the right balance. The serious issues that Eda Holmes discusses in her program notes are not realized on stage. Martin Happer’s Illingworth needs more than superficial swagger and a self-satisfied delivery of the epigrams: he needs to be both charismatic and repellent, and it’s neither. It’s a flabby characterization.
As the wronged Mrs. Arbuthnot, Fiona Byrne is emotionally pallid. It’s a listless performance. This is a devoted mother waging battle for her son’s welfare? You don’t believe it for an instant — not even at the end when the Devil gets his comeuppance. Meanwhile, Wade Bogert-O’Brien does little more than plod earnestly through the role of Gerald, and Hester’s moral passion flickers only intermittently in Julia Course’s performance.
So the production poses a puzzle. How can good people get something so wrong?
(A Woman Of No Importance continues to Oct. 22. Ticket information at shawfest.com or 1 800511 SHAW)