Oscar Wilde’s period piece transcends its Victorian setting and has an acute contemporary message on class and sex divides, says PETER MASON
A Woman of No Importance Vaudeville Theatre, London 4/5
THIS entertaining Oscar Wilde play has been performed only once on the London stage in the past 20 years. A shame, as it’s almost as relevant in these times of social division as it was when written in 1892.
With its consideration of the status of women and its coruscating condemnation of the class system, the play was radical for its era but, partly for fear of alienating Victorian audiences, the original was amended by Wilde to reduce the amount of social commentary it contained.
Some of those elements have been reinserted into this version of the play, the first in a new Wilde season at the Vaudeville by the Classic Spring theatre company led by Dominic Dromgoole, who directs here.
Though consistently funny, the play has its faults.
Often it appears to be just a series of clever one-liners and is sometimes difficult to digest, particularly before the interval where there is more talk and less action than the more dramatic second half.
There’s an overuse of running gags, repeated ad nauseam, and with so many characters wandering around on stage — with the actors in search of something meaningful to do when they’re not involved — it’s difficult to focus on the action.
On the whole, though, the cast rise to the challenge admirably and make the most of the many comic lines even though, at times, secondary witticisms are drowned out as the performers fail to wait for the initial laughs to subside.
Anne Reid, mischievously playing Lady Hunstanton as a woman who can be simultaneously sharp and deliberately vague, stands out.
And there are excellent offerings from Eve Best as the wronged Mrs Arbuthnot and Emma Fielding as the adventurously inclined Mrs Allonby, with both visibly straining against the expectations of Victorian womanhood and the double standards restricting their movements.
Best, a dramatic figure in black velvet, is perhaps alone among the cast in being able to take her character beyond the caricature which, at least partly, Wilde allows in his writing.
With its old-fashioned accents and manners, formal dress and country-house setting, the play is nevertheless striking in that the issues it tackles have not gone away.
The fact that very little in it seems dated is a reflection of how far we have fallen back from the necessary social and economic reforms that took place after Wilde wrote it.