Vaudeville Theatre, London ****
From running one of London’s smallest but boldest new writing fringe theatres, the Bush, to Shakespeare’s three-tiered Globe, Dominic Dromgoole is now set on a new departure – nothing less than bringing proscenium style theatre back to proscenium theatres! Or rather, celebrating a style of performance that in any other theatre would starchy, arch and horribly out of date.
Not that A Woman of No Importance, for all the tinkering and restoring of Wilde’s original drafts and amendments, doesn’t draw exactly that kind of reaction.
Witty epigram after witty epigram falls from the lips of Eleanor Bron, Anne Reid and Emma Fielding’s aristocratic matrons – Lady Caroline, Lady Hunstanton and the naughty Mrs Allonby – as they sit around in satin finery, swopping quips about marriage, women, and their husbands.
It’s all elegantly if slightly laboriously done in studied anachronistic style, delivered facing out to the audience as if emphasising precisely its decorative home. `We are in a proscenium theatre, we are performing a 19th century social comedy. We are wearing fine frocks and our words are consciously made, like the best of chocolate bonbons, to taste sweet on the tongue and slither deliciously down the throat.’
The problem is, Wildean repartee was made for the man himself – as indeed his alter ego in A Woman of No Importance, Lord Illingworth, could perhaps only best be carried off by an actor with the insouciance and mocking, devil-may-care arrogance of a Wilde. There aren’t many of them around these days – dandys with a heart!
As it is, Dominic Rowan’s Lord Illingworth delivers his cutting remarks, one feels, with a certain reluctance. But as with Eve Best’s `fallen’ Mrs Arbuthnot, the wronged party after a disastrous tryst 20 years ago resulting in bearing his child out of wedlock, Rowan’s portrait finally becomes a haunting picture of a cruel, amoral dilettante, playing with emotions just as he does words.
Best too finally comes into her own in the harrowing final quarter of the play when in true Wildean style, he forsakes the mask to reveal human emotions beneath. You marvel afresh at the speech he gives Mrs Arburthnot about being a mother, its sensitivity about motherhood and the love and pain it jointly brings. And at every turn in the last quarter of the play, lines jolt into today’s relevancy as if Wilde had penned them with half an eye on today’s headlines to do with sexual and power abuse.
For when all is said and done, like Strindberg, like Shaw, Wilde’s wit is actually at the service of a forensic analysis of the battle of the sexes and in particular, like Shaw, an indictment of the double standards and hypocritical patriarchal conventions operating in his society and still with us today.
Dromgoole’s production in the Vaudeville, itself handsomely restored to delicate finery by Nica Burns’ Nimax theatres, sits therefore very prettily, indeed triumphantly, conjuring up not only ghosts from the Vaudeville’s own illustrious past but bringing it forward into now.
Best makes a forceful, moralistic figure of Mrs Arbuthnot and there are delightful cameos from Sam Cox as Lady Caroline’s over-protected husband, Sir John – only too eager to escape her eagle eye – and from William Gaunt as the Reverend Daubeny whose account of his wife’s infirmities is, in itself, a sad little gem.
But it is in introducing some of Victorian music hall’s sentimental ballads as inter-act divertissements that Dromgoole perhaps finds his deftest touch.
Anne Reid, accompanied by her `staff’ of butler and maids, finds a perfect pitch that blends sincerity with just the merest hint of irony. Indeed, the cautionary temperance tale of poor homeless Betty, left to fend for herself because of a `drunkard father’ and dead mother takes on added pathos in the light of today’s homeless stretching along the Strand, just outside the Vaudeville theatre’s doors.
Judging by the audience, Dromgoole’s year long Wildean fest isn’t going to get the young avant gardists and trendsetters necessarily flocking to the Strand, as Wilde did in his day. All the same, it’s an intriguing choice for the next stage of Dromgoole’s journey and one that delivers not just pertinence and moral depth but an emotional tug, to boot.
Next up beginning in January, De Profundis, adapted by Frank McGuinness and Lady Windemere’s Fan, directed by Kathy Burke. Mouth-watering.
Mrs Arthbuthnot: Eve Best
Lady Caroline Pontefract: Eleanor Bron
Miss Hester Worsley: Crystal Clarke
Alice: Meg Coombs
Sir John Pontefract: Sam Cox
Mrs Allonby: Emma Fielding
Lady Stutfield: Phoebe Fildes
Reverend Daubeny: William Gaunt
Francis, Footman: Tim Gibson
Farquhar, Butler: Will Kelly
Gerald Arbuthnot: Harry Lister Smith
Lord Alfred Rufford: William Mannering
Lady Hunstanton: Anne Reid
Mr Kelvil, MP: Paul Rider
Lord Illingworth: Dominic Rowan
Tilly: Sioned Jones
Father’s a Drunkard and Mother is Dead
The Gypsy’s Warning
A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother
Director: Dominic Dromgoole
Designer: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting Designer: Ben Ormerod
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing
Associate Director: Sara Joyce
Musical Supervision: Jason Carr
Voice and Dialect: Martin McKellan
Casting Director: Matilda James
Costume Supervisor: Lorraine Ebdon-Price
Wig Supervisor: Carole Hancock
First perf of this production of A Woman of No Importance at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, Oct 6, 2017. Runs to Dec 30, 2017.
Presented by Classic Spring Theatre Company
Associate Producer: Rosie Townshend
Review first published in this site, Oct 27, 2017