Shaw Festival’s opening scenes in A Woman of No Importance are almost a reminder of today’s reality tv shows, where people are gossiping derisively and endlessly about others. Similarly, most of these characters represent a repressed British society, where the wealthy live off their ancestors and appear to have nothing better to do. However, this play is more meaningful and insightful than any reality tv show for it shines a light on the virtuous like protagonist, Mrs. Arbuthnot, and ironies that surface from the vulgarities in the artifice of high society. The play runs until October 29th in the scenic Niagara-on-the-Lake.

A Woman of No Importance
(l to r): Matthew Finlan as Farquhar, the servant; Mary Haney as Lady Caroline Pontefract, Fiona Reid as Lady Hunstanton, Diana Donnelly as Mrs Allonby, Claire Jullien as Lady Stutfield, Julia Course as Miss Hester Worsley and Landon Doak as Francis, the servant. Photo by David Cooper.

A Woman of No Importance, although written in the 1890’s, comments on many aspects of society that are still prevalent today, including the public shaming and ridicule felt by those who are different and not accepted by others. Although, today’s public shaming is more often done through the media and internet. Oscar Wilde, the famed playwright, experienced public shaming when it became known that he was gay and in love with a younger nobleman. Wilde was imprisoned for several years, and ironically, when A Woman of No Importance was garnering fame as it toured various parts of Britain. However, Wilde believed love could overcome the shaming, but unfortunately, it didn’t for him. Wilde contracted meningitis and died at the early age of 46.

When Lady Hunstanton, played by the acclaimed Fiona Reid, remarks that Britain is falling apart, she received unexpected applause from several members of the audience, who connected it with Britain’s recent and tumultuous vote to succeed from the European Union.

OUTCAST AND OUT OF WEDLOCK

The play’s title is a critical comment of how women were treated in his day, despite the fact many were great contributors to the community and country. At the center of this play is Mrs. Arbuthnot, who had a child, Gerald, out of wedlock twenty years earlier. When she asked the father, Lord Illingworth, a randy and wealthy bachelor, to marry her just to give the child a namesake, he refused. So Mrs. Arbuthnot lived her life in shame and raised her son alone, which was extremely difficult years ago. Twenty years later, Lord Illingworth meets his son and wants to be part of his life. The two admire each other, although the son doesn’t know Lord Illingworth is his father. Lord Illingworth offers his son a job as his secretary, but the mother is vehemently against it. When the mother tells Gerald that this is his father, Gerald also wants Lord Illingworth to correct the wrongful past and marry his mother. Gerald, portrayed by Wade Bogert-O’Brien generated a great deal of sympathy as an anxious young man trapped in this scandalous drama and deeply devoted to his mother.

At the same time, Gerald plans to marry Hester Worsley, an American. She is referred to by the others as “the Puritan” for her idealistic views. Miss Worsley is quite forthright in disagreeing with the opinions of this gaggle of women on many counts; however, she does support Gerald’s mother. The two share the same views, and are both outcasts, although quite politely, from their group and society.

CROSS-SECTION OF WOMEN

The characters in this play include a fair cross-section of society, including men that are ineffectual. It’s the women who make men feel important. Diana Donnelly plays Mrs. Allonby, a quintessential modern woman, sophisticated and smart, and knowing when to use her feminine wiles. Despite society’s pressure to marry, she sees matrimony as a boring lifestyle that ruins loving relationships. Many similar views were expressed by the women, who admit to hearing men try and make conversation, but not really saying anything at all. Mrs. Allonby mischievously challenges the playboy within Lord Illingworth, by telling him to kiss Miss Worsley so that she can knock his confidence down a peg or two. However, this is as close to a subplot as Wilde pens in this play. We don’t see anything develop as a result of this testosterone challenge as it could easily have turned into a mishap, as it would in so many comedy of errors.

Wilde cleverly crafts dialogue that is biting and hits home, but the cast’s delivery is rapid, and there isn’t enough time to process all of it. No one wants to miss judgemental, yet sweetly-uttered gems like those by Mrs. Hunstanton: “How clever you are when you speak, yet you never mean a single word you say.” She and Lady Caroline Pontefract, portrayed by Mary Haney, best expressed a vague British, yet humorous snobbery in the delivery of their comedic lines.

Most of the characters’ lines are often so completely absurd; it is difficult to believe they are sincere in their view of the world, and what they hold to be true. Other comments are said with such trifles it is alarming, especially when dealing with political and economic matters, such as: “The problem of people in poverty is that we are trying to solve it by amusing them.”

Martin Happer portrays the cool and debonair, Mr. Illingworth, who’s entire dialogue speaks to the conservative socio-economic one per cent that are well aware of the inequality, blame those that suffer because of it, and do nothing to improve it. He also takes several jabs at the U.S. and describes American dry goods as its “novels,” and America’s youth as being over 300 years old. Beneath the superficiality and mockingly good fun in this play runs a strong undercurrent of pathos, prejudice, and rocky morals.

OSCAR AND GEORGE

Lots of arguments and drama follows, before the play’s ending strikes a candid chord regarding the sanctity of marriage and the strong principals of Mrs. Buckner. A Woman of No Importance is a thought-provoking play, and a welcome addition to Shaw Festival, which has also successfully presented Oscar Wilde’s: The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan. Both born in Ireland, Wilde and George Bernard Shaw were acquaintances and wrote about each other’s works.

Eda Holmes, the director of A Woman of No Importance, updated this play’s setting to the 1950’s to make it more of a modern commentary. The 1950’s was also one of the last stylish fashion periods where women in their daily lives were elegantly dressed. Shaw’s set design was opulent with a touch of antique-looking furniture and held a spacious, timeless sense. While A Woman of No Importance isn’t considered the best of Oscar Wilde’s plays, it still remains boldly courageous and respectably …., important.

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