Having once been the Artistic Director of a major London theatre whatever you choose to do next will generate significant interest. Next week former National Theatre head Nicholas Hytner welcomes his inaugural press night to The Bridge Theatre, London’s first brand new playhouse in years, while tonight former Globe AD Dominic Dromgoole launches his year-long celebration of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre, opening with this production of A Woman of No Importance.
It’s fairly unusual for a Wilde play to open cold in the West End these days and more often versions come from regional or touring productions that earn a transfer, so this is a particularly interesting choice for Dromgoole. Last year, Kenneth Branagh concluded a 12-month residency at the Garrick Theatre that has brought the curated season back into fashion, so Dromgoole’s four-play collective under his new Company Classic Spring, that will also include An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and up next Lady Windermere’s Fan from January is less of a risky venture than it would perhaps have been considered 2 years ago.
Wilde’s comedy plays are frequently performed by professional and amateur theatre companies and much loved by audiences. Like Noel Coward, you know exactly what you’re going to get before you sit down and the less frequently performed A Woman of No Importance has all the ingredients that you expect; a collection of snobby aristocrats, a comedy vicar, a dark secret that threatens to expose the leading man and as many witticisms on the nature of man and society as you can stuff into 2.5 hours. But by the end of Dromgoole’s sparkling production it also has something else… it has heart.
At the country home of Lady Hunstanton, a collection of society’s finest have gathered for a dinner party where it is announced that young Gerald Arbuthnot is to become secretary to the eternal bachelor Lord Illingworth. Still in his prime, Illingworth flirts mercilessly with the ladies as the guests happily exchange gossip and bon mots, while espousing their political ideas on love, marriage and social decency. Into this happy scene comes Gerald’s mother, the sorrowful Rachel Arbuthnot who is surprised to come to face-to-face with a figure from her past and a shocking secret is revealed.
The downfall of many an Oscar Wilde production is trying too hard to make it funny rather than trusting the rhythm of the lines which do almost all the work for an actor. Dromgoole’s production suffers no such concerns and has assembled a very fine cast who create a genuine impression of a group of people who’ve become comfortable with each other’s caprices over the years, while mostly delivering the text as though it were natural speech. It’s a large cast which has been carefully considered and directed to ensure even the smallest role is distinct, and even the servants have a quietly present role to play in suggesting the life of a busy household.
Absolutely stealing the show, Anne Reid is a magnificent Lady Hunstanton, the comfortable dowager whose easy hosting style reveals a love of life and real pleasure in the diverting company of her friends. Reid exudes warmth and makes you long to be her guest, but, in what could have been a quite an empty role relegated to ushering people from room to room in search of food and entertainment, Reid allows her Lady Hunstanton to become subtly more inebriated as the evening unfolds, throwing in an overlarge turn here, one restrained hiccup there, that make you long for her return every time she leaves the stage. With spot-on timing, her performance is a comic joy.
The production’s coup de theatre however is to use Reid and her servants as the entertainment between Acts and while the curtain momentarily comes down to rearrange the set, Reid and co sing a selection of appropriately themed drawing-room songs while we wait. It’s a cunning and entirely successful piece of staging that keeps the plays momentum through the frequent changes of location while offering the audience a touch of innovation as Reid sings to us as her character as though revealing the after-dinner accomplishments all ladies were expected to have, a wonderful Vaudevillian moment (in the most appropriately named theatre). One of the servants then invites us back to join the other guests, a lovey touch.
As the woman of the title, Eve Best is quite the opposite as Rachel Arbuthnot, a sombre and emotional figure walking through the party like the spectre at the feast. Best is always very good at delivering long-repressed emotion, and although she slightly overdoes the histrionics in the Third Act, she makes up for it in the Fourth with a nice sense of self-possession and vindication as her experiences lead to the play’s conclusion. At times, perhaps, a tad more bitterness and vitriol could be introduced when faced with the person who wronged her, but her final extensive monologue to her son is full of love and delivered with feeling.
This is very much a play about women and their power in society so much of the action focuses on their interaction in the drawing room as well as the airing of their contrasting political views. Emma Fielding is excellent as the modern Mrs Allonby, talking to the men as their equal, flirting openly and revelling in her position as a married woman with considerable freedom away from her husband. She has a nice frisson with Dominic Rowan’s Lord Illingworth as well as frosty dislike of the more puritan Hester Worsley. Eleanor Bron has a natural superiority as Lady Caroline Pontefract who easily dismisses the concerns of others while keeping close watch on her husband, and Crystal Clark as Hester manages the contrast of her discomfited American puritan among careless wealth well.
Apart from the central scandal, the men all seem rather superfluous in this world of women, but Dominic Rowan is suitably scathing as Lord Illingworth, maintaining a sense of the magnetism of the character that makes him popular and attractive to women, but balances this with a slightly unsavoury predatory approach to young women and a final flourish that should blow away any audience sympathies. Harry Lister Smith is an innocent and eager Gerald while Sam Cox as Sir John and Will Kelly as servant Farquar get plenty of laughs.
Dromgoole’s direction creates a smooth and sparkly production that zips along, makes the best of Wilde’s social comedy and brings out the anguished undertones and comment on the consequences of privilege that make the final act convincing. A Woman of No Importance is a fine start to this year of Wilde plays and while I harbour a secret hope that at least one of the four productions will surprise us with a more innovative setting, this opener proves that with a clear vision and a very fine cast this should be quite the crowd-pleaser.
A Woman of No Importance is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 30 December and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1