A Woman of No Importance
Classic Spring Theatre Company
After a decade of directing little but the works of Shakespeare as Artistic Director of the Swan of Avon’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole must have relished his new-found freedom to choose from the world pantheon of playwrights.
Rather than regressing to the new writing of his past at the Bush and elsewhere, his initial project is a year devoted to the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde. After many years of prominence, that writer's star has waned of late so this season is most welcome.
Rather than starting with the crowd-pleasing The Importance of Being Earnest, which arrives in 2018, Dromgoole has chosen to open with a relatively rarely performed early morality play.
A Woman of No Importance has a great deal to commend, especially in a 2½-hour-long production that features a cast with such depth of stage experience. In particular, it is filled with Wildean aphorisms including some legendary gems, almost always highly amusing as they unerringly puncture upper-class pomposity.
Designer Jonathan Fensom has been given free rein to create a terrace outside a stately pile and two drawing rooms in different styles, all of which seem fully authentic and in keeping with the period for a play first performed in 1893.
The opening scene introduces a large party, every member of which is, at least to a degree, eccentric.
Anne Reid is a sociable but insensitive hostess, Lady Hunstanton. Eleanor Bron gives a delicious cameo as Lady Caroline, a kind of precursor of Lady Bracknell who amusingly treats her almost invisible husband like a badly behaved puppy. The relationship between William Gaunt’s doddery old Reverend Daubeny and his unseen wife also promises hidden humour.
However, by far the most intriguing (in every sense) pairing are Dominic Rowan’s Lord Illingworth and Emma Fielding as Mrs Allonby. Without knowing the facts, one would swear that they had been modelled on the leading players in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, such is the duo’s malign desire to seduce the young and innocent.
Into the last category fall American orphan and puritanical millionairess Hester Worsley, played by Crystal Clarke, and her gauche admirer Harry Lister Smith in the role of Gerald Arbuthnot.
However, the leading player does not appear until the second act, by which time a small band of musicians led by Miss Reid has regaled the audience with the first of their comic ditties, the most memorable of which is entitled “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead”.
Eve Best is Mrs Arbuthnot, a shy and retiring widow who is a model of purity and goodness and loves her young Gerald to distraction.
However, an unexpected revelation on her meeting with Lord Illingworth throws the party into disarray and allows Oscar Wilde to make some trenchant points about the imbalance between the sexes in late Victorian England and the dangers of moralising while skeletons hide away in unlocked cupboards.
Dominic Dromgoole ensures that the evening is packed with humour, although occasionally he can be a little too keen to add his own witty flourishes to a finely tuned drama, already packed with sparkling repartee. The director also introduces intimations of impropriety that were almost certainly not even hinted at by Wilde.
Even so, he makes the most of a carefully chosen cast—led by the superlative Eve Best, peaking when her character hits low points—who together ensure that the opening play from the Classic Spring Theatre Company is a pleasure and heralds what promises to be a highly enjoyable season.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher