A Woman of No Importance: Oscar Wilde
**** (4 stars)
I confess, I had to look up the plot of this Wilde play, and when I’d read it I wondered whether it would hold up in 2019 in front of an audience whose attitude towards ‘fallen women’ was undoubtedly very different from that in Wilde’s day. I shouldn’t have doubted…
Written in 1892, Wilde’s play holds up a mirror to society of the time and exposes the hypocrisy and dual standards of the day. Women are expected to be paragons of virtue: one slip and they are cast out into the outer darkness – no forgiveness, no redemption – while men’s ‘amusing peccadilloes’ are deemed of no account, and in many cases lauded, even where they are the very cause of the women’s downfall.
A country-house party, with titled and wealthy guests, is the idyllic setting. Hostess and guests sit on the terrace, exchanging witticisms and commenting on the gossip of the day: Miss Hester Worsley, one of the guests, is an oddity – a self-confessed Puritan, and an American, to boot. Much is made of the absent Lord Illingworth, “such a charming man”, who has just offered to make young Gerald Arbuthnot his personal secretary, much to everyone’s delight. An MP, who seems rather uncomfortable in this illustrious gathering, holds forth pompously about the national importance of PURITY. The rather ‘daring’ Mrs Allonby bets Lord Illingworth he can’t make a pass at the young American: he recognises very distinctive handwriting on a letter, but dismisses it as by “a woman of no importance”…
Gerald’s mother is invited to join the party in the evening, and arrives to join the ladies [who have left the men to their after-dinner drinking] in time to hear Hester deliver a scathing condemnation of the wealthy English élite among whom she is staying, contrasting their “selfishness and sin” with the morality and egalitarianism of American society. Mrs Arbuthnot has not previously met Lord Illingworth and appears shaken when she learns how he came, most unexpectedly, to inherit his present title: he is the father of her illegitimate child, who refused to marry her when she told him she was pregnant – the prospect of Gerald being his private secretary is abhorrent to her, but she doesn’t want to destroy her son’s love for her by revealing the truth about his parentage, nor can she explain why she thinks his love for Hester will not reach a happy conclusion.
It’s a fascinating play – a constant stream of Wilde witticisms and biting comments – which got the audience laughing within the first minute with an extraordinarily apposite condemnation of Parliament. Some of his characters lived only to sparkle and shock, but others were allowed to pour out their hearts and expose the period’s self-indulgence and hypocrisy, while the closing line was greeted with the satisfied laughter and applause it so richly deserved.
The sets were beautiful – framed by a gold picture frame which emphasised the artificiality of the life portrayed within – and the costumes were equally delightful to the eye. I didn’t warm to the artificiality of the characters who only lived to shock, and couldn’t see why any woman would be attracted to Mark Meadows’ Lord Illingworth, even before he was revealed as the villain of the piece. Tim Gibson was a delightfully young and vulnerable Gerald, and Georgia Landers’ Hester more than held her own in a society with which she was at such variance. Katy Stephens’ Mrs Arbuthnot seemed a little awkward at first but grew into a fearless tiger in defence of her young, and the final scene between these three promised well for their future.
Between acts we were regaled with music-hall songs delivered by Archdeacon Daubeny [Roy Hudd, playing the decrepit clergyman to perfection] accompanied by an interesting mix of social classes – servants and ‘nobs’ on fiddle, trumpet, guitar and piano accordion: very entertaining, though the ends of lines sometimes got lost, and cleverly masking the considerable effort going on behind the curtain to change the scenery.
If you only know Oscar Wilde as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, I invite you to come and experience Wilde using his wit and dramatic skill to speak on behalf of people condemned and ostracised by society – a fate he was to suffer the very year that Earnest was first seen on stage.
A Woman of No Importance: Oscar Wilde, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh runs until Saturday 5th October, Tour continues for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/a-woman-of-no-importance