A Woman of No Importance review at Vaudeville Theatre – ‘gently revelatory’
Launching a year-long season of Oscar Wilde’s work along with his new Classic Spring company, Dominic Dromgoole’s production of A Woman of No Importance, is on one hand, almost defiantly, an exercise in theatre-as-artefact – a celebration of the proscenium – on the other hand it's also a reminder of facets of Wilde’s writing that are often overlooked: his capacity for compassion high among them.
Written in 1893, the play is an examination of the hypocrisy of Victorian society in which women are shamed and stigmatised for their sexual conduct and men can pretty much do as they please. “And till you count what is a shame in a woman to be an infamy in a man, you will always be unjust,” one character declares; in a fluke of programming no one could have anticipated or desired, it all feels dismaying relevant.
Eve Best plays Mrs Arbuthnot, a woman who has spent the past 20 years raising her son Gerald alone after Lord Illingworth refused to marry her. To avoid complete disgrace, she had to change her name, leave her home and assume the identity of a widow. Now Illingworth unknowingly wants to employ his illegitimate son as his secretary and Mrs Arbuthnot is faced with the double-trauma of confronting the man who abandoned her while revealing to Gerald the truth of his parentage.
The production takes a good while to warm up. During the first scene Dromgoole positions his cast awkwardly at the front of the stage, and things move as slowly as an autumn-drunk wasp lumbering across a rug. There's what feels like an intentional stiffness to proceedings. Jonathan Fensom’s set is one of painted flats and French doors and the velvet curtain descends during the between-scene interludes. While the (lengthy) set changes take place we are treated to songs of the era – including A Boy’s Best Friend is His Mother – performed by the cast with a trilling Anne Reid on vocals.
But every time Best is on stage the whole production lights up like a gas lamp. Mrs Arbuthnot is not one of Wilde’ coolest characters. She does not speak in quips and witticisms. But she is a woman of strength. She’s had to be. Her love for her son is lake-like and her fear that she might lose him almost unbearable. Best conveys all of this in every eloquent half-smile; it’s there in every loving look she gives her son.
The supporting cast is also strong. Anne Reid and Eleanor Bron are superb as Ladies Hunstaton and Pontefract, as is Harry Lister Smith as the gawky and tousle-haired young Gerald, desperately keen to show the world he is a man only to hide under a chair when things get too much.
Dominic Rowan is not un-charming as Illingworth. There’s a suggestion of the attraction that once existed between him and Mrs Arbuthnot but he’s unrepentant as to the consequences of his behaviour, blind to the damage he has done.
In this way Dromgoole’s production, while on one level an exercise in looking backward, staged in the theatre where Wilde would have seen Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, ends up being gently revelatory.