DESCRIBED as a “hilarious satire on the hypocrisy, snobbishness and complacency of upper-class Victorian society” and directed by Tony Award winning director Patrick Mason, A Woman of No Importance opens at the Gate Theatre next Tuesday. Although it is not staged as often as some of his more well-known plays such as The importance of Being Earnest or An Ideal Husband, it is classic Wilde with all of his hallmark wit and satirical social commentary.
The play was written after the success of Lady Windemere’s Fan and premiered in 1893 at the Haymarket Theatre in London. It proved to be a great success although it has not proved as popular in modern times. The subject matter is again the vices, secrets and hypocrisy of the English upper classes and perhaps more than some of his other plays, it reflects his own views on the society he lived in. It is also quite a complex play which is not easy to define or pigeon-hole.
With regards to plot, George Hartford, who will inherit the title of Lord Illingworth, has an affair with the lower-class Mrs Arbuthnot. She consequently has a child in secret and manages to work her way up the social ladder until her son, now a barrister, is offered a position as secretary to the self-same Lord Illingworth. Eventually the truth about the circumstances of his birth come to light. It is the witty, urbane Lord Illingworth and his female counterpart, the flirtatious Mrs Allonby, who are given most of the wittiest lines in the play.
Mrs Allonby is played by Cathy Belton whose previous stage work includes Sonya in Uncle Vanya, Mette in Festen, and Emma in Betrayal by Harold Pinter. On screen she has appeared in Single Handed, Proof and Paths to Freedom. This is, however, her first role in an Oscar Wilde play.
“My character is the female dandy of the piece,” she says. “She is the wicked, modern woman and although she is quite hardened, she celebrates all that is light and trivial in the world. She has survived in Victorian England by assuming the role of dandy and she is very clever. She has one speech about the ideal man which is a complete inversion of what an ideal man should be. It is a wonderful part to play and I am surprised the play is not staged more often.”
Perhaps, as someone on the edge of conventional society, Wilde was able to appreciate the restricted roles of women and brought that sensibility to the female characters in his work. “I definitely think he wrote good parts for women,” Belton says. “There is tremendous contrast between the female characters in the play and in conjunction with the wit and satire there is a heartbreaking story. There is great freedom in his parts for women.”
Marion O’Dwyer, whose previous work at the Gate includes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Twelfth Night and Pride and Prejudice and who plays Lady Hunstanton in this play agrees.
“My character is a typical high-society hostess who is warm, sociable and well-bred but a little scatty,” she says. “Occasionally, however, her comments inadvertently hit the mark. I think Wilde understood how women experienced the world. In one speech Hester Worsley says you are unjust to women in your society; in fact the whole speech is very interesting and probably reveals a lot of what Wilde thought himself. Often he slips in serious comment in the words of his characters almost by sleight of hand to overcome the social prejudices of the time.”
Of course beneath the lightness of the work there is, for modern audiences, a keen awareness of the tragedy of Wilde’s life and death. Indeed the tour of A Woman of No Importance was interrupted when Wilde was arrested and charged with gross indecency as a result of his ongoing battle with the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde had originally attempted to have the Marquess prosecuted for libel; when that failed he was charged himself on evidence that came to light during the libel trial. This would eventually lead to his conviction and his imprisonment for two years of hard labour. His health broken, he died in Paris, aged 46 and destitute. Is it possible or even desirable for the actors or the audience to forget the tragic nature of his later life?
“We had a number of discussions during rehearsals about his life but for me it is more about his words on the page and how that transfers to the stage,” says Belton. “This play brings out his genius and his wit and it is for these elements that audiences still want to see his work. I like to think of him as someone who lived his life to the full and pushed the boundaries as hard as he could.”
For O’Dwyer the tragedy of Wilde’s later life lingers on and adds a tangible element to his work. “When Lord Illingworth says of society that ‘To be in it is merely a bore. But to be out of it simply a tragedy’ or when you see George desperately striving to be part of this magnificent, exquisite group of people you do feel the resonances with Wilde’s own life. The play was shown in its own time and these people lived and behaved in the ways the play portrays and it is almost like their ghosts come to life.”
Both actresses agree that the play retains its relevance for a modern audience and that Wilde’s pinpoint wit remains as effective as ever. “It is very witty and still very pertinent and there is enough dark elements to counteract the lovely words and lovely frocks,” says O’Dwyer. “The play contains some of his most famous epigrams, the set and costumes are stunning and these exotic characters have such a sense of style and panache. The language is masterful and it is a great challenge for any actor. It is like trying to learn a difficult piece on the piano; when you get it right it is the most fun ever, but if you can’t master the technique it is terrifying.”
Belton adds: “I think that an audience will always appreciate clever writing which appears effortless and makes us laugh at ourselves. I love the challenge of seeing how my character will evolve and how the audience will react. An audience can be a fragile beast and you never quite know how it will respond on any given night. That is the danger and attraction of live theatre. I suppose one of the benefits of a classic like this is that you can see resonances in the current economic mayhem; corruption and hypocrisy are universal. First and foremost, though, it is hilarious and in an Irish context, we love black humour. Wilde is dark and vicious at times and we are well able for that in this country, maybe now more than ever.”
* Booking at www.gatetheatre.ie or 01-8744045