Richmond Theatre, London – until Saturday 21 September 2019
Reviewed by Serena Norgren
A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde was first performed in 1893. In typical Wilde style, its essence is to satirize the English aristocracy and Victorian values. Women were, at that time, subordinate to men in every sense and reputation was everything. The play’s basic premise is the ruination of a good woman, Mrs Arbuthnot (Katy Stephens), by the caddish Lord Illingworth (Mark Meadows) with whom she had run off 20 years previously but who then had refused to marry her; she unexpectedly encounters him in a country home. To complicate matters further, he has just unknowingly offered their son Gerald (Tim Gibson) a job, which his mother is determined he should not take. Does she tell her son the truth and risk being judged? Or should she stay silent? The hypocrisy of the stigmatisation of the “fallen” woman and the celebration of the much admired aristocrat is what is at the core of this piece.
The play opens in the grand estate of Lady Hunstanton (Liza Goddard) where a collection of upper class caricatures have gathered. The first act is a pedestrian affair with various exchanges between the more minor characters including Gerald’s moralising American love interest, Miss Hester Worsley (Georgia Landers), lecturing on the flaws of the aristocracy. It is lumpy and awkward, only relieved from time to time by the waspish wit of Lady Caroline Pontefract (Isla Blair) with her comic one-liners mainly directed at her bumbling husband, Sir John (John Bett).
With the arrival of Mrs Arbuthnot in the second act, we move from fluff to melodrama as Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth fight it out for the soul of Gerald. Although, Katy Stephens does a fine job of the tortured mother trying to protect her son at her own expense and Mark Meadows serves up a decent line in suave caddishness, the intense melodrama is verging on the ridiculous. This is unequivocally a play of two very distinct and different halves.
During the (lengthy) set changes, we are treated to entr’acte ballads performed by the cast with Roy Hudd as the Reverend Daubeny on vocals. With names like Polly Perkins from Paddington Green and The Dark Girl dressed in Blue, these felt contrived and at times, somehow offensive.
Director, Dominic Dromgoole’s earlier revival of this play seems to have been much feted, but this production is stilted and old fashioned. The sets are huge and heavy and the lighting was so dark at times it was difficult to see the actors’ expressions. However, it is not simply the production that fails to deliver. Despite Oscar Wilde’s reputation as a playwright, famed for his vicious wit satirizing the hypocrisy of the aristocracy and calling out the moral double standards, this piece simply does not resonate in the 21st Century. In the post Weinstein era, it
takes a strong stomach to enjoy the piece although one could argue it does establish Wilde’s feminist credentials. It’s relevance today is however hard to see: the modern feminist debate is a much more nuanced and complex one. Of all the plays in all the world, it is hard to see why a producer would choose this one; of all the Wilde plays, again, why choose this one?