Arts Review, Movies

Shaw Festival Review: A Woman of No Importance

Shaw Festival Review: A Woman of No Importance featured image

A Woman of No Importance

A play by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Eda Holmes
Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco

Starring: Martin Happer (Lord Illingworth), Wade Bogart-O’Brien (Gerald Arbuthnot), Fiona Byrne (Mrs. Aruthnot), Fiona Reid (Lady Hunstanton), Diana Donnelly (Mrs. Allonby), Julia Course (Hester Worsley), Mary Haney (Lady Pontefract), Jim Mezon (Sir John Pontefract)

Oscar Wilde only wrote four comedies in the late Victorian era and they’re all worth reviving today. Clearly in agreement with that assessment, Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director of the Shaw festival, has already included Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband in her programme over the years. Now, with A Woman of No Importance, the quartet is complete, just as Ms. Maxwell is finishing off her final season at the festival.

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Maxwell’s long-time associate Shaw director Eda Holmes has helmed this production, which features a fine ensemble performance led by the inimitable Fiona Reid (though she doesn’t have the major role), elegant design by Michael Gianfrancesco and an interesting temporal concept, moving the tale from late Victoriana to England in the early 1950s.

A Woman of No Importance is an odd play for Wilde. Much of it takes place at a dinner party thrown by Lady Hunstanton (Fiona Reid) in which people drink, eat, play pool and flirt outrageously. Like all of his works, it features great aphorisms but when a plot eventually emerges about half way through the proceedings, it suddenly shifts to melodrama. Before getting into that most un-Wilde-like of all genres, let’s relish some of the aphorisms.

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During the very funny parts of the play, the elegant heartless Lord Illingworth is the focus of our attention. When asked about his politics, he opines: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.” Illingworth resists nostalgia, even for his romantic past: “To win back my youth, there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.”

His finest companion is the beautiful, cynical Mrs. Allonby. In one of their many clever exchanges, Wilde has them say:

““LORD ILLINGWORTH: The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life.
MRS ALLONBY: And the body is born young and grows old. That is life’s tragedy.”

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It’s all wonderfully Wildean but one must have to admit that not much is happening. And Wilde is not Beckett.

Mrs. Allonby and Lady Hunstanton notice favourably that Illingworth is doing a rare thing for him, offering a prestigious secretary position to Gerald Arbuthnot, a young man beneath him in station. Why is he so generous? When Illingworth is confronted with Arbuthnot’s mother, all becomes clear: they’re former lovers and Gerald is their “love” child. Suddenly, Wilde has to become serious—and it’s remarkable to hear the proto feminist sentiments that he proposes in the play’s final act.

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Holmes’ decision to move the play to the ‘50s makes sense in a fashion and design sense. Everyone looks and dresses elegantly but I’m not sure if pre-Suez Crisis Churchillian England is any more relevant to our present morals and mores than the final years of Victoria. Perhaps the point is that nothing significant had changed in 60 years and that’s likely true. It took the Sixties, Swinging London, The Beatles and Mary Quant before things really changed in England.

While A Woman of No Importance isn’t the best of the Wildean quartet of society comedies, Holmes’ production is genuinely enjoyable and thoughtful. One has to wonder, though, about the import of “importance.” Is Illingworth really there to be condemned? Holmes certainly pitches the play that way and it’s true that Rachel, Mrs. Arbuthnot, gets the final line, which is a come-uppance of Illingworth and his breed and their lack of genuine importance.

Are we to take the play as Wilde’s repudiation of himself or, at least, those he most loved? (After all, “Bosie,” the lover who destroyed the great playwright, was the son of the Marquess of Queensbury.) Holmes seems to think so. Perhaps she’s right but wouldn’t the world be poorer without those lovely aphorisms?

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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