purity (n): lack of dirty or harmful substances; lack of guilt or evil thoughts; the quality or state of being pure
“Kevil (a British MP]: Lord Illingworth is…lacking in…purity of life which is so important in this century.
Hester (a Puritan from America]: You laugh at the simple and the pure.
Gerald [a bank clerk]: You have insulted the purest thing on God’s earth, a thing as pure as my own mother.
Mrs. Arbuthnot [Gerald’s mother]: I would rather be your mother…than have been always pure.”
Who amongst us can wear the mantle of purity with the absolute assurity of a blameless existence? Who can honestly throw the proverbial first stone at anyone who has been deemed impure by others in thought or deed? Who can truly accept the badge of purity, knowing full well a long-past indiscretion—whether or not it comes to light—belies the honour?
Oscar Wilde’s honesty about his own “impure” life fuelled much of his finest work and, ultimately, led to his “disgrace” (which was especially welcome for those whose own behaviours have managed to escape public scrutiny) and pathetic end.
This season’s production of A Woman of No Importance captures the mood, grim reality and empty-headed thinking that Wilde so brilliantly set down in 1893 which entertained as many as it made others feel mightily uncomfortable in their aristocratic (real or imagined), upper-class skins.
Director Eda Holmes’ decision to set the play in 1951 pays off in many ways. Much of the world was discovering itself anew after the bitter taste of World War II was beginning to lose its repugnancy. Surely we can all get along now?
The time switch also sets up the running gag for new modes of photography: filmed or instant as the case may be. None better than Jim Mezon as the perpetually henpecked Sir John Pontefract (marvellously named after England’s “most feared castle”—just ask Richard II!) to capture the frames of his fellow players, frequently aided and abetted by Kevin Lamotte’s inventive flashes of light.
Doing the pecking is Mary Haney, launching her acidic lines as Lady Caroline Pontefract with She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed (or lose her raison d’être) relish.
Wilde employs the opulent Hunstanton Chase as the backdrop for the first three acts where the lady of the house is entertaining a covey of guests carefully selected to give the playwright all of the tools, attitudes and prejudices he needs to make his many points and observations.
The ever-gracious, happily widowed hostess, Lady Hunstanton, is brought to dottified life by Fiona Reid, delivering her expertly crafted lines with an ideally puzzled-yet-delighted tone and spot-on sense of timing which most certainly merited the audience’s enthusiastic applause following her Act IV tour de farce.
The rest of the women come in all stripes of beliefs and backgrounds. From the New World, young Puritan Hester Worsley thinks nothing of criticizing her host and fellow guests to the point of saying that when in the wrong, women must be punished just as severely as men and that—tellingly—“the sins of the parents should be visited on the children.” Yet, as Wilde knew all too well, what, exactly, constitutes a sin?
Worldly, fashionable Mrs. Allonby (done up with panache by Diana Donnelly) without her husband anywhere in evidence, stands in stark contrast to her American “cousin” and matron-before-her-time Lady Stutfield (Claire Jullien with an ideally understated performance). At the core of it all is the seldom-seen (socially) Mrs. Arbuthnot, who seems surprisingly well off for a single mom with a vague past. Fiona Byrne brings a fine passion to the challenging role where the fear of being “found out” drives her away from society and into the anonymity of helping the poor. Her entire life revolves around her son who never had a father in the respectable sense.
Wade Bogert-Obrien playing Gerald Arbuthnot hits all of the right notes as the devoted son whose future suddenly looks extraordinarily bright thanks to a gentleman taking a very strong fancy to him (Wilde and Holmes artfully sprinkle just the slightest of hints that this man-to-man affection might be tinged with something more than mentor-student camaraderie). As Wilde’s alter ego, Martin Happer serves up Lord Illington so believably that many of the crowd rewarded him with devilish boos during the bows!
The two remaining principal men are both presented as pillars of society outwardly only to reveal themselves as selfish to the hilt, leaving their wives to fend for themselves while attending to affairs of state (Mr. Kevil, MP—Jeff Meadows readily full of his character’s assumed importance) or the souls of his flock (Ric Reid masterfully unmasks Archdeacon Daubeny’s true colours with a simple ease that some may not fully appreciate).
By journey’s end, it is abundantly—at times painfully—clear that there are no pure players in Wilde’s world if measured by the mores and standards of “proper” society. Has anything really changed today?
And the fearless writer doesn’t hesitate to throw himself in the face of his detractors, getting Lord Illingworth to state, “The future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule.”
History, of course, has quashed that hope, which perhaps explains why the biggest laugh of the entire show came at the expense of the current British government without the word “Brexit” ever being uttered. JWR