A Woman of No Importance
Performed in the Unicorn Theatre 16-19 July 2003
by Oscar Wilde
A Play of Some Importance
Some of Oscar Wilde's wittiest remarks are to be found in one of his lesser know plays - A Woman of No Importance.
Written in 1892, directly after his acclaimed Lady Windermere's Fan, the play is set in the context of a country house party - but the underlying and more serious theme concerns a woman with a secret past.
Last week, Abingdon Drama Club brought Wilde's play to life, presenting sparkling nights of entertainment during the plays run from Wednesday until Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon.
Directed by Keith Hales, the excellent cast of 14 took us back to an age of upper-crust Victorians, grand dames and lords enjoying their position and influence over endless and trivial after- dinner conversations, with witty and ironic sentences tumbling out so rapidly it was difficult for the chuckling audience to keep up.
The play features famous Wilde witticisms such as (on fox hunting) "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable" and countless observations on the differences between the sexes.
Women are "sphinxes without secrets" while for men, "the future belongs to the dandy" according to his caddish creation, the odious Lord Illingworth.
"Men marry because they are bored. Women marry because they are curious. Both are disappointed," he remarks. Lord Illingworth also observes: So much marriage is certainly not becoming. Twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building."
The quips come thick and fast, delivered with supreme timing and irony (although a few prompts were needed on the opening night). However the shallowness of this high society is shown up by a story of shame, motherly love and the moral dilemma of a fallen woman.
Acting honours, in particular go to Terry Newbegin as the young and naive Gerald Arbuthnot, Ruth Collins as the vampish Mrs Allonby, Jon Crowley as Lord Illingworth and Lin Beeker as the shamed but strong Mrs Arbuthnot.
But everyone in the cast deserved praise for this beautiful adaptation that really came alive after the interval. I'm sure Wilde would have been proud of their efforts.
Roy Cooper - Abingdon Herald - 24/7/03
Originally performed in 1893, A Woman Of No Importance was written after the success of another of Wilde's 'society plays' Lady Windermere's Fan and follows twenty-four hours in the lives of characters we first meet on the terrace at Hunstanton Chase. The play traces the fortunes of the young Gerald Arbuthnot, a humble banker's clerk offered a prestigious position as secretary to Lord Illingworth. Dark secrets from the past come to light with the arrival of Mrs. Arbuthnot, causing Gerald to reject the post.
Wilde was an astute writer who had insight and vision into the undercurrents of shallowness, unfairness and moral double standards of the society in which he lived. He also offers hope and encouragement to those who stand for principle and reject the status quo. His mastery and understanding of language are apparent and his wit and intellect shine through. Lines such as:
"To the philosopher, my dear Gerald, women represent the triumph of matter over mind - just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals." are pure genius.
Wilde's adept use of language was undoubtedly part of the attraction of going to see the original performances, that and his shock tactics of views on a society where the audience would laugh, usually without realising they were laughing at themselves. A Woman Of No Importance contains many Wildean witticisms, particularly from Lord Illingworth played commandingly by Jon Crowley. Some of the best lines in the play come from him and at first the audience laughs at lines such as:
"It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true."
only later on starting to empathise with Mrs Arbuthnot in her hatred of the character.
In Wildean characters there is frequently an intense emotional reality beneath the witty remarks something of which Lin Beekar was obviously aware. As the troubled Mrs. Arbuthnot she revealed the character's private pain in an intelligent and impassioned manner whilst managing to maintain the essential dignity required. The scene with her son (played admirably by Terry Newbegin) in the Fourth Act was especially touching.
All three actors were supported by a strong cast who gave sterling performances. Special mentions must go to Malcolm Ross as Archdeacon Daubeny and Eileen Bagshaw as Lady Pontefract who provided some extremely funny moments. The play did seem to drag slightly towards the end of the First Act but really came alive after the interval with the action accelerating in pace towards the final confrontational scenes.
The excellent performances were complemented by the exquisite Victorian costumes assembled by Wardrobe Mistress Jane Cadogan, finery which really came to the fore in the intimate environment of the Unicorn Theatre. In such a space it is important to keep set to a minimum and Malcom Ross's simple but effective design followed this principle helping to keep the stage necessarily uncluttered.
A big thank you to Keith Hales, his cast and crew for what was a very enjoyable night out.