This is nothing that hasn’t been done before, but that was always going to be the case. In fact, tradition is the very point of the Oscar Wilde season produced by Classic Spring Theatre Company, a new venture from director Dominic Dromgoole, of which A Woman of No Importance is the first production. Or more precisely, the point is that audiences probably haven’t seen this particular play before, written in 1892 and performed once in London the last 20 years, despite our national familiarity with Wilde.
To those like me un-habituated to the ‘proscenium arch’, this experience feels strange. It is, put tritely, a case of stepping back in time. This West End theatre is where Wilde first saw Hedda Gabbler, and I’m not at home among its royal boxes, footlights and elaborately painted ceilings. A dichotomy emerges. Do I, a) consider this play differently because it’s two centuries old and, well, not claiming direct relevance to today or b) approach it how I do most plays (Shakespeare included), embedded in a current socio-political context, asking ‘why now’ and ‘why this’? The fact that I’m even considering a) seems interesting to me.
A Woman of No Importance is initially mundanely impersonal, as aristocrats laze around hypocritically discussing society from afar. I find it hard to forget that outside of the theatre it feels like the world is falling apart, while those inside it are being hugely amused by these elderly forgetful 19th century ladies. This may say more about of my temperament (and age) than anything else, but I can’t be alone in these preoccupations and in feeling a kind of guilty indulgence at being here at all.
The production works and it’s entertaining, but it’s not challenging and it may not be aiming to be. Jokes hit their marks, at least for those predisposed to Wildean humour (personally, I find that his inverted truisms quickly wear thin and familiarity renders them as ineffective as the tautologies they rile against). Only a piece of innuendo from Dominic Rowan’s imperious Lord Illingworth falls flat; we’re less charmed by men referencing their endowments these days. I feel at this point that a) wasn’t really an option after all.
Dromgoole is clearly at home with this material and it comes to life with fluent ease. Emma Fielding stands out in the first half as the spirited and controversial Mrs Allonby. Anne Reid is a joyous host as Lady Hunstanton, providing quaint musical interludes. Crystal Clarke’s somber American Hester ‘the Puritan’ Worsley doesn’t quite lift off like you want her to, but it’s somewhat expected of the play’s era for vulnerability to be quashed. Most characters seem to float just above emotional wells, not quite close enough for us to decipher what’s below. Worsley’s measured pleas for this social bubble to consider life differently and defy England’s norms however, hit the nail in option a)’s coffin for good.
Dromgoole wants to draw us into the fact that this was a radical play in its time, that it’s the ancestor of today’s new writing, but I’m not convinced by this argument. That’s until the second half. Post-interval the distancing conventionality is stripped away and I’m won over. This change is mostly down to Eve Best, who shines as Mrs Arbuthnot, giving a precise and brilliant performance, a supposedly broken mother surrounded by a world empty of intimacy. Audience allegiances are switched and meddled with, to a point where you can almost hear Wilde laughing at our desire for moral certainty. Harry Lister Smith as Arbuthnot’s son Gerald is also impressive, an effective performance of mannish boyhood.
As many will note, this is a play about women stepping out of their assigned places, but with feminism now several waves beyond what Wilde shows, this element of the play doesn’t provide the answer to b). Similarly, the neatly resolved ending leaves little for consideration. I find myself wondering whether, had it ended without resolution, or even a sense that everyone was in some way corrupted, it would have left us more to think about. Perhaps an unresolved story would, at this moment in time, chime better with reality.
A Woman of No Importance runs until 30 December 2017 at the Vaudeville Theatre. Click here for more details.