By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Eda Holmes
At the Festival Theatre, June 25-October 22, 2016
Cavalierly dismissed as “one of the most improbable and unpardonable works ever written by a man of talent,” it is far better than its harshest critics imagine. Certainly not as polished, witty, or superbly structured as The Importance of Being Earnest (one of the greatest high comedies in the English language), A Woman of No Importance does have execrable or regrettable passages of dialogue. Louis Kronenberger famously claimed that it had two halves: “The worse half lies moldering in the graveyard of Nineteenth-Century problem drama; the better half has taken up residence in Bartlett’s Quotations.” Yet its epigrams, paradoxes, and melodrama pulse with an open heart.
One of the wonderful things about Eda Holmes’s beautiful production is its total belief in this heart. Transplanting the play from fashionable 19th century London to a 1950s salon society (most glitteringly captured by Cecil Beaton and Christian Dior), Holmes and her designer, Michael Gianfrancesco, have not forsaken glamour. They have captured much of Dior’s New Look in terms of feminine silhouettes, and their re-imagined world still has drawing rooms, butlers, parties, flowers, high mirrors, and tall curtains that open or close on intimate scenes. This production adds the camera to its setting, placing the invention in the hands of Jim Mezon’s Sir John Pontefract, sometimes for shady comedy (away from his doggedly pursuing wife, Lady Caroline, amusingly sketched by Mary Haney), sometimes as a metaphor for a society infatuated with itself. And what a society this is, with the likes of Lady Hunstanton (Fiona Reid in top form as a glitteringly dippy hostess); the alluring Mrs. Allonby (Diana Donnelly); gossip-hungry Lady Stutfield (Claire Jullien); the young American heiress, Hester Worsley (Julia Course), quite out of sorts in this frightfully sophisticated but arrogant society; and assorted male characters, ranging from a MP and lords to an archdeacon (Ric Reid in another of his gloriously sketched eccentrics) who turns his offstage wife into a vividly amusing subject.
But while Wilde’s wit does wander, and the piffle quotient is more than negligible, Eda Holmes’s production gets to the core of crucial circumstances circumscribing a woman with a past and others who are ignorant of it. Mrs. Arbuthnot, the fallen woman of the ironic title, is both “sinner” and the one sinned against. The mother of an ambitious son (born out of wedlock after her liaison with Lord Illingworth, who refused to marry her), she is deadest against allowing her naïve son, Gerald (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), to climb the social ladder when he is offered the role of private secretary to the repulsively chauvinistic Illingworth. She holds firmly to her resolve until her son learns the truth about his mother’s past. Then, in an emotionally climactic scene, she confesses why she has never repented of her “sin”: “How could I repent of my sin when you, my love, were its fruit?”
Garbed in black, Fiona Byrne transcends much of the artificiality of the mother’s dialogue by a performance of hard truth. She does not seek to reflect Mrs. Arbuthnot’s character in the glass of fashion, but rather in the mirror of nature. In her other climactic scene—a confrontation with Martin Happer’s selfish, wicked peer—she plants her feet squarely on the gleaming floor, and slaps him across the face with a sound louder than the door Nora slams in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Some women in the audience on opening night cheered lustily, but this feminist approval was hardly necessary. Holmes’s production never seeks vulgar applause. It is an aesthetic marvel that is seductively designed, superbly lit (especially like magnified camera flashes by Kevin Lamotte), and sensuously enacted. Accordingly, it turns a minor work into a tasteful artefact that transcends its museum quality by showing what we gain or lose by masking our true natures and forgetting what true hearts mean.