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A Woman of No Importance at Market Drayton Festival Centre – Review

North Shropshire entertainment | Published:

It felt like we were getting two plays for the price of one at the Festival Centre last week when Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance was streamed to us live from London’s Vaudeville Theatre.

Eve Best as Mrs Arbuthnot

The first play was a comedy of manners in which epigrams were bandied back and forth between a group of upper-class Victorians socialising on the hot summer terrace of a country house. They included the amoral Lord Illingworth, flirtatious Mrs Allonby, good-time hostess Lady Hunstanton, conservative Lady Caroline and moralising Mr Kelvil MP. They wittily declaimed on the nature of women, the role of mothers, the obligations of duty, and much more. It was entertaining in a party patter sort of way, but after the first act I was ready to move on.

And move on we did. Wilde changed gear so dramatically it was as though we were in another play. There were hints of Ibsen amidst the melodrama as Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth confronted their dark past and fought over the future of their illegitimate son Gerald. This was gender politics played for high stakes, seemingly headed for “the ending that always happens – the woman suffers, the man goes free.”

One line is actually repeated in both parts, with radically different impact: “Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely if ever do they forgive them.”

In the current climate of sexual harassment and worse by those with power, I could easily imagine the darker scenes being played in modern dress, whereas the language and style of the witty scenes belonged firmly in the 1890s when it was written. The character with the potential to bridge both parts was Hester Worsley, a young American heiress who both preached against the faults of the upper class guests and provided long-suffering social outcast Mrs Arbuthnot with an unexpected happy ending. But her boasts of an America where “all is fresh and green and full of hope,” now brings only a wry smile.

In a fascinating introduction featuring Oscar’s grandson and biographer 72-year- old Merlin Holland, we learned that Oscar Wilde four times visited the very theatre now producing his play, to see Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. But the influence didn’t steer him far from his social comedies which remain so popular. The other three will also be streamed to the Festival Centre from the Vaudeville Theatre in a Wilde season stretching into next autumn. Next up is Lady Windermere’s Fan on March 20, with a cast including Jennifer Saunders.

By John Hargreaves

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