A Woman of No Importance
Festival Theatre - Niagara-on-the-Lake
by Mike Keenan
Matthew Finlan, Mary Haney, Fiona Reid, Diana Donnelly, Claire Jullien, Julia Course, Landon Doak, photo by David Cooper
Jackie Maxwell, Shaw's outgoing Artistic Director, signs off in this production with, "We have produced three of Wilde's major plays during my tenure as Artistic Director and I am very pleased to include the fourth and final one in my last year. There is no doubt that Wilde's skillful mix of comedy, style and social commentary is as resonant today as when he first presented it to an unsuspecting public and I have no doubt that Eda Holmes' sophisticated take on the material will make this connection new and surprising."
She follows up with, "In this society, if you want to know what's really going on, join the women on the terrace at Lady Hunstanton's country house party. Marriage, affairs, divorce - and, of course, the wickedly attractive and scandalously unmarried Lord Illingworth are all thoroughly discussed. Word is that Illingworth would like to become a diplomat and make the young Gerald Arbuthnot his protégé. But when Gerald's mother arrives at the party, their world is rocked when her long-concealed secret comes back to haunt them all. Wilde's witty and piercing look at society's public values and their impact on private lives."
Given, it's hard to miss with Oscar Wilde's witty material such as, "Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed," and Eda Holmes has directed a well-received newer version of A Woman of No Importance bringing it into the early 50s when I recall that the lot of women in Ontario if not all of Canada was not much improved, definitely that of a second-class citizen, particularly with inequitable divorce laws that kept many desperate women in unwholesome marriages, unable to escape.
We get to key issues in the opening set, unappreciated by a Globe critic, comparing Michael Gianfrancesco's lavish
drapes to shower curtains, but, in fact, his creative yet sparse set
forces one to zero in on the players themselves as they enter, even as Graeme Somerville, subbing for Jim Mezon as Sir John Pontefract, deliberately objectifies each woman through his camera lens.
Gianfrancesco's costumes, it should be noted, are strikingly beautiful, the women identified by specific colours, and when Julia Course is on stage, it's like viewing an exquisite, elegant pink bird, worthy of Swan Lake
Mary Haney's Lady Caroline Pontefract humorously provides sexual counterpoint to Sir John, constantly instructing her husband as to what to wear, where to sit and precisely how he should feel. And there we have it, an engagement of the sexes amidst the British upper crust who, in the end, all manage to take a beating courtesy of Wilde.
Fiona Reid as Lady Hunstanton carries the play with her incredible stage presence, fine voice and a befuddled memory composed of juxtaposed opposites such as "And there was also, I remember, a clergyman who wanted to be a lunatic, or a lunatic who wanted to be a clergyman, I forget which..." At one point almost as an aside to the audience, she says, "Politics are in a sad way everywhere, I am told. They certainly are in England... I am sure, Lord Illingworth, you don't think that uneducated people should be allowed to have votes?" Those prescient lines drew long applause from the audience, suffering from the recent Brexit turmoil.
Amidst the Brit upper class, Wilde inserts a pretty young American foil, Hester Worsley (Julia Course), who observes the country house banter and is quick to insert her own strong opinions, and is thus labeled "the Puritan," with lines like these: "You rich people in England, you don't know how you are living... You shut out from your society the gentle and the good. You laugh at the simple and the pure... You love the beauty that you can see and
touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy, and do destroy, but of the unseen
beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. Oh, your English society seems to me shallow, selfish, foolish."
The conflict peaks when Lord Illingworth (Martin Happer) unknowingly hires his illegitimate son, Gerald (Wade Bogert-O'Brien), conceived twenty years ago by the then teenaged Mrs. Arbuthnot (Fiona Byrne). Although Illingworth promised her marriage at the time, he never delivered; thus Mrs. Arbuthnot cast him off and raised Gerald alone.
Happer is witty and flirtatious and as he is soon to become Ambassador to Vienna, he needs a private secretary. Byrne will have nothing of that relationship, her son serving the dandy, Happer, who is significantly cold and objective about the situation and would like to conclude the issue with a business-like relationship. "I don't admit that it is any duty of mine to marry you. I deny it entirely. But to get my son back I am ready - yes, I am ready to marry you, Rachel - and to treat you always with the deference and respect due to my wife. I will marry you as soon as you choose. I give you my word of honour."
Byrne wears her loneliness, pain and struggle well, and in her, we see a quiet determination to right the wrongs that afflict her world. Happer might be a little more sleazy in this account, but he maintains a nasty frosty demeanor throughout the affairs of the heart, taking up Mrs. Allonby's (a brazen Diana Donnelly) dare to kiss Course, the Puritan, which eventually loses him Gerald who falls in love with Hester.
Wilde's witticisms abound. At one point, Lady Stutfield (Claire Jullien) says, "Ah! The world was made for men and not for women" to which Mrs Allonby (Diana Donnelly) replies, "Oh, don't say that Lady Stutfield. We have a much better time than they have. There are far more things forbidden to us then are forbidden to them."
Holmes has a wonderful male cast at her disposal, but in this play, Archdeacon Daubney (Ric Reid), Lord Alfred Rufford (Thom Marriott) and Mr. Kevil (Jeff Meadows) are merely along for the ride.
With Wilde, society's rules regarding the behaviour of men and women are at the centre of this play, and in fact, it becomes a morality play for what is really at stake is far more important than the frivolity and mental gymnastics exhibited at Lady Hunstanton's estate. Course, the moneyed American Puritan, at first believes that children deserve to wear the negative effects of the sins of their parents, but quickly empathizes with Byrne's plight as she falls in love with the illegitimate Gerald and detests his father. In the end, Byrne gets the last word, referring to Illingworth as "a man of no importance."
The Festival Theatre was full for this performance, and the audience enjoyed the show, the loudest applause for Byrne, Reid and Happer. The program notes (below), as always, enrich the experience. A Woman of No Importance is well worth viewing and it plays at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 22. See:
Director's Notes by Eda Holmes
"God's law is only love." A Woman Of No Importance
Life for Oscar Wilde was ruled by a social order that celebrated beauty and youth but insisted that inconvenient truth be kept a secret. Wilde's own secret was his love for young men in general and Lord Alfred Douglas in particular. His secret was finally revealed and condemned in a court that used Wilde's own art against him. When he began to write A Woman of No Importance he was basking in the celebrity he had created for himself through his writings and lectures on aesthetics, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his plays - especially The Importance of Being Earnest. By the time Woman got to the West End in London in a hugely successful production, Wilde was being dragged through the process of public shaming that destroyed his career and ultimately the man himself. His life was a spectacular paradox that gave birth to both the epigrammatic wit of his plays and the beautiful yet painful reflections on love which appeared in De Profundis, the searing essay he wrote in prison.
A Woman of No Importance brings together all his gifts as a writer. It is evidence of his brilliance on both sides of the human experience - comedy and tragedy. It is a chronicle of the pleasure of belonging to the best of society and the pain of being cast out from it - but it does not stop there. Wilde pushes his epigrammatic gifts to allow love to redeem shame. The play illuminates the society that both raised him to the heights of celebrity and then tore him down.
For this production, rather than depicting Wilde's fashionable England as it was in 1894, we have chosen to set the play in 1951. This was the year that the Conservatives ousted the Labour government and Dior's New Look returned high fashion to a very feminine silhouette. The war years had begun to relax the gender roles and moral codes, and clothes were limited by rationing. But the return of the Conservatives in 1951 was a bit like hitting the reset button, taking high society back to notions of Victorian power, morality and gender-specific fashion. Setting the production in this suddenly Conservative version of 20th-century Britain respects the image of society Wilde was illuminating, while bringing it closer to our own time in the hopes of exploring how society continues to have the power to make or break the individual.
Despite all the degradation visited upon Oscar Wilde by his society, he truly believed in love. He believed that it could save him from shame. In A Woman of No Importance he has created a world where love can save you. If only it could have saved him.
Design Notes by Michael Gianfrancesco
Thirty-six years after his death, Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) is constantly resurfacing. Throughout the 20th century he worked as a war photographer, set and costume designer, social diarist, and was a discerning arbiter of style with sharp opinions on all of his subjects. He lived in historic houses with dramatic interiors, famous for their whimsy, opulence and handcrafted decoration. His studio windows were festooned in hessian curtains covered in thousands of mother of pearl buttons stitched in large patterns. Known for his Academy Award-winning designs for the film of My Fair Lady, Beaton spent his life photographing artists, socialites, royalty, movie stars and friends, a role that allowed him to ascend within the society that he so desperately wanted to be a part of.
To be photographed is to be noticed, documented and recognized by society. Beaton's society portraits examined and supported a world and a social hierarchy that no longer exists today. These portraits captured a privileged class, setting up a divide between those who are included and those who are not. They were a social passport, confirming one's place within a long-standing tradition. He treated his subjects with intense scrutiny and worked endlessly to make them look their best. He would ruthlessly touch up his subjects, using what would appear to us today as crude methods of manipulation. He would have loved Photoshop.
Our production was greatly inspired by one specific Beaton photograph of models in Charles James gowns in an elegant room. This became the world for our production. Photography informs our entire show, scenery, costumes, lighting and the character's views and opinions of each other. Each character wears a colour that appears in all of their costumes, giving them a visual narrative within the story. All of this is reflected in the aged, mirrored panels of the scenery offering multiplied, impressionistic glimpses of all of the characters as they move through the space.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) like Shaw, was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father was an internationally known ear and eye surgeon, and his mother a writer who supported Irish
nationalist and women's rights movements. Young Oscar distinguished himself in classical
studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and won a scholarship to attend Oxford. There he became influenced by the aesthetic movement, which held that a full life was only possible through one's devotion to art. By 1881, Wilde was so well known for his aesthetic views that his eccentricities were satirized in Punch and in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience.
Such notoriety led to a year-long lecture tour to America, where he was lionized by the press. After returning home in 1882, he undertook a similar tour of Britain. Soon afterward, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons. Wilde's literary career did not begin to take shape until the late 1880s. After a two-year stint as editor of the London magazine Woman's World, he published a book of children's stories entitled The Happy
Prince and Other Tales. In 1891 he published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which generated a great deal of critical controversy.
From 1891 and 1895, Wilde wrote four society comedies on which his literary reputation now rests. The first two were Lady Windermere's Fan (produced in 1892) and A Woman of No Importance (1893), which ran for more than 100 performances each. The last two, An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), would likely have
run much longer, were it not for the famous scandal that broke upon Wilde
at the height of his fame.
Wilde had become the lover of Lord Alfred Douglas, known as "Bosie," an aspiring poet 17 years his junior. Bosie's father, the Marquis of Queensberry, detested Wilde and his lifestyle. Two weeks after The Importance opened in triumph, the Marquis delivered a calling card to Wilde's club, describing Wilde as a "Somdomite" [sic]. Instead of ignoring the incident, Wilde (at Bosie's urging) sued the Marquis for libel. This gave Queensberry his long-awaited opportunity to destroy Wilde. In court, private detectives and male prostitutes gave ample testimony to Wilde's homosexual practices; and when Wilde dropped the lawsuit, he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years at hard labour.
From prison, Wilde wrote a long bitter letter to Bosie which was later published as
De Profundis (4 YouTubes), and on his release left for France and never returned to Britain. His last
major work was a poem entitled The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). Dogged by poverty and ill health, Wilde contracted an ear infection and died in Paris in 1900.