The Theatreguide.London Review
Of No Importance
Vaudeville Theatre Autumn-Winter 2017
Like several of Oscar Wilde's other plays, A Woman Of No Importance is a serious and thoughtful drama masquerading as a light comedy.
The task facing any director is to do justice to both of the play's levels and to keep them feeling part of the same play, and Dominic Dromgoole struggles with and ultimately fails to meet that challenge.
This revival too often feels like two separate plays that have been cut up and pasted together in alternating chunks, so that wholly serious scenes sit uncomfortably next to others made up entirely of empty wit.
The upper-class guests at a country home weekend chatter lightly about a variety of topics, gradually zeroing in on the roles and responsibilities of the two sexes.
Though men and women view it differently and there are even some debates within each group, it is generally agreed that women have the higher social and moral role, being both more practical and more upright than inherently flighty men.
It therefore follows that women have a greater responsibility, and that a woman who fails is far worse than a man who wanders from the straight path.
Unknown to all but the two involved, they actually have among them a man who long ago seduced and abandoned a woman and the woman who has fought since then to maintain a fragile mask of secrecy and respectability.
The serious half of the play is about them, and the discovery that even they accept the general view.
The man is not viciously evil – he is, in fact, the wittiest and most attractive in the play's comic sections – but he takes it as just his due that he has walked away from his past actions untarnished.
And the woman, despite having the clear moral high ground and all of Wilde's sympathy, takes it as given that she is a justly fallen sinner with no right to a place in society.
Both as lightly toyed-with theoretical debate and serious human drama, the double standard (though no one in the play stands far enough outside the social unanimity to realise it is that) is the target of Wilde's scorn and anger.
What director Dromgoole is unable to do – and I grant it is a difficult task – is to draw the connections that I've just suggested between the group's idle chatter and the woman's personal drama and to make them parts of the same play.
As a result the comic social scenes feel like trivialising and insulting interruptions to the drama, while it is difficult for us to take seriously a topic we've just been laughing about when the more private scenes demand that we do.
In this context it is much to Eve Best's credit that she conveys both the fallen woman's pain and dignity even as Wilde moves us to want to shake her and tell her to reject the moral judgement she has internalised.
Dominic Rowan's challenge is to reconcile the man's wit and social leadership with his considerably less attractive private side. But the production's too-sharp division between its comic and serious halves makes that particularly difficult, and he winds up playing two separate characters who never really come together.
The rest of the cast function largely as mouthpieces for different debating positions in the social scenes or as appreciative audiences to the cleverness and wit of others. And in these somewhat less demanding roles polished veterans Anne Reid, Eleanor Bron and William Gaunt are particularly successful.
A Woman Of No Importance is the first in what will be a year-long season of Wilde plays at the Vaudeville Theatre.
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