Through October 29
A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE Festival Theatre/Shaw Festival
By Augustine Warner
Oscar Wilde wrote “A Woman of No Importance” in his own time, first on stage in 1893.
For the Shaw Festival production, director Eda Holmes and designer Michael Gianfrancesco moved the play to 1951 and used designs of Cecil Beaton for the lavish costumes of the upper crust women who populate the show.
Once you get past that, there’s no point to the time shift.
Fortunately, it’s a very strong production with some wonderful performances, especially Martin Happer’s Lord Illingworth, and some really elaborate sets from Gianfrancesco.
This is an unusual play because it’s a mix of social satire, social criticism and drama.
Holmes staged the show in two acts, with the first combining the basic three acts surrounding the elegant country house of Hunstanton Chase, filled with the entitled and reigned over by Lady Hunstanton (a wonderful Fiona Reid).
Wilde sets up the story while showing his skill with words, skewering the pompous and hypocritical upper crust of his time, at play in the country.
This is a show filled with Wildean epigrams: “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox-the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable” and “You should study the Peerage, Gerald…It is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.”
Wilde was Irish.
He takes time to set up the story, women sniping at their own society and its pretensions and gossiping about Illingworth and lusting after him.
They are also sniping at the young American heiress and Puritan who is visiting, Miss Hester Worsley (Julia Course), who disapproves of the lifestyle.
To me and probably to very many people in the audience, the social context of the time of the play and the time of this production are astonishingly different.
Wilde wrote in the last years of Queen Victoria, a mother appalled by the behavior of her dissolute heir, and a time when power has shifted vastly because of the Reform Bills.
It hasn’t yet gone to the population majority, although it has certainly shifted away from the aristocracy to the rich and the dissolute ways of the old power structure are fading before the values preached by the new reformers.
The new production is set in a time when two world wars have decimated the upper crust and shifted power to a new group, even though a returning Winston Churchill and the Conservatives have just replaced Labor in the government seats of the House of Commons, in a society changed forever by legislation of that Labor government.
A grocer’s daughter, Margaret Thatcher, was on the first steps to becoming prime minister.
In this production, none of the new shows up to demonstrate the need for the time shift. Illingworth has just offered an enviable post as his secretary to this up and coming diplomat to unknown country rube Gerald Arbuthnot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien).
That brings Lady Hunstanton to invite his mother over from her inadequate housing nearby, not the house which shows up in the second act.
Anyway, Illingworth discovers Mrs. Arbuthnot (Fiona Byrne) is an old flame who had a son by him and then disappeared with the infant.
Gerald believes his father is long dead.
Only when the nobleman behaves badly, again, does Rachel tell her son the identity of his father.
Back then, he was the impecunious younger son of a rich noble who had no chance of inheriting the title and she was a young woman who abandoned her own family to go off with him on his promise of marriage.
In the crunch, he didn’t.
Gerald becomes very twistingly male, writing a letter to Lord Illingworth, demanding that he now marry his mother.
It’s a fascinating look at one person’s view of sexual roles in a family.
This time, the father is interested in marrying and the mother isn’t, changed by the stress of time and parenthood.
The ending clearly is in contrast to the expectations of a Victorian audience.
Director Holmes has a very strong cast to work with, especially Happer, Reid, Byrne and Diana Donnelly’s Mrs. Allonby.
She also has Gianfrancesco’s gorgeous and sometimes overdone sets to perform on.
Those sets enable some interesting stage moments, especially the shadows which appear on the scrim toward the back of the stage telling stories of their own.
There is also some really evocative lighting work from Kevin Lamotte, helping tell the story.
That story sprawls across the vast stage of the Festival Theatre, a hypocritical society skewered by an outsider with deep secrets of his own and a conflict between his public image and his private life.
Obviously, that shows up in Wilde’s comments on social secrets in a time when there were few secrets, but little public disclosure.
It’s possible to take a very different look at the play in the wake of Wilde’s decline and fall and death, at a man commenting from an armored closet about the little-challenged society around him.
“A Woman of No Importance” is really worth seeing.
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