A Woman of No Importance

Oscar Wilde
Theatre Royal Haymarket
(2003)

It is all too easy to forget how well Oscar Wilde constructs his plays. He is justly famed for his epigrams and great wit but his observation of character is generally spot on as well.

A Woman of No Importance primarily focuses on the differences between men and women and, more importantly, the way in which Victorian society treated its ladies. As with Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde shows feminist leanings as he attacks the injustice of a society that condemns a "fallen" woman while admiring the cause of her downfall.

Adrian Noble's production starts a little stiffly with the light drawing room comedy. It only comes to life when the playwright's alter egos, Lord Illingworth, played rather camply by Rupert Graves, and Mrs Allonby, a powerful but endearing Joanne Pearce, start throwing out aphorisms, many from the book of quotations (of fox-hunting, "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable"). Both they and Mr Noble are to be congratulated on their excellent comic timing.

The second act introduces the black-dressed sombre Mrs Arbuthnot (Samantha Bond) and Julian Ovenden as her gauche son, Gerald. His admiration for Lord Illingworth and love for a young American heiress (Rachel Stirling's Miss Worsley) build to a dramatic revelation of shame. Noble handles this effectively, freezing everything on stage apart from the main protagonists.

Rather than stopping there, Wilde plays with morality and his characters' anguish, contrasting the frothy society types led by Prunella Scales' dippy Lady Hunstanton with waggish rogues and at the last, the noble trio, who come to look down on the thinly veneered cruel cynicism of this society.

Miss Bond is impressive as the pained mother who sacrifices her honour to protect her son, while the bitchy comedy delivered by Rupert Graves and Miss Pearce is always delicious. The playwright also gives each a serious speech with which they shine.

A Woman of No Importance is a great reminder of how good Oscar Wilde is. He writes beautifully in both comic and (sometimes melo)dramatic mode and his main characters are memorable.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

Philip Fisher