Sunday, August 21, 2016

Shaw production of A Woman of No Importance very important indeed

It is perhaps a bit of serendipity that brought Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell to programme Oscar Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance during her final season at Shaw.  After all, how was she to know what would happen in British politics during 2016?

What happened, of course, was the largely unexpected outcome of the Brexit vote and the resulting upheaval that will see England ultimately leave the European Union.  That same vote resulted too in the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and the entry of a woman once again as Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May.

In the first act of Wilde's play, Fiona Reid's Lady Hunstanton casts a knowing glance at the audience when she asks Martin Happer's Lord Illingworth if he is in favour of "uneducated people be allowed to have a vote?"  There was more than a little laughter in the audience at the performance we attended, with the outcome of the Brexit vote still fresh in our minds.

But there is so much more to this lavish production at the Festival Theatre than just being timely.  Director Eda Holmes has moved the action of the play from the original 1894 Victorian England to 1951, when the country was recovering from the outcome of the Second World War.  There was political fallout that particular year as well, as the Conservatives under Winston Churchill bested the Labour government of Clement Atlee at the polls.

The year 1951 also saw women fashionably turned out courtesy Dior's celebrated New Look, and that offers designer Michael Gianfrancesco a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the feminine silhouette with a wide array of extravagant costume designs.

His set design, too, is lavish - there are large windows and floor-to-ceiling curtains as a backdrop to the elegant set design.  Together, sets and costumes almost steal the show from the cast assembled by Holmes.

Almost, but not quite.

This cast is strong all around, spearheaded by Fiona Reid as Lady Hunstanton.  Reid is always worth seeing no matter what the play, and in this particular case we benefit from her character's social standing and knowledge of affairs happening all around her.

But it is not a one-woman show.  Holmes has surrounded Reid with a strong cast that includes the aforementioned Martin Happer in the pivotal role of the rake Lord Illingworth, who loved and left Fiona Byrne's Mrs. Arbuthnot as an unwed teen mother years ago.

Byrne is the so-called Woman of No Importance, and she finds a strong ally in the American girlfriend of her son, Gerald.  As Miss Hester Worsley, Julia Course presents a sensitive portrayal of the role, offering moral support for Byrne's character.

Her son Gerald, of course, creates an untenable situation for his mother when he brings Lord Illingworth to meet her and announces he has accepted a position as Illingworth's new secretary.  The new job brings with it social standing Gerald is quite looking forward to, but it is his mother who has to deal with the reality of the situation at hand:  Illingworth is actually Gerald's father.  So, should the two continue with plans to leave for India on business, or does this new dilemma take that off the rails?

Wade Bogert-O'Brien's Gerald is earnest and sincere, while Happer's Illingworth is much less so.  They are a bit of an odd couple, actually, leaving the audience to question if the job offer to Gerald was genuine or there were other motives involved.

Early on, Jim Mezon wanders the stage snapping pictures as a sort of one-man paparazzi in his role of Sir John Pontefract.  It's a delightful turn, but certainly one of the smaller roles we've seen from the talented Mezon over the past several seasons.

Overall, this is a satisfying production of Wilde's play, not at all mired in the past.  It still speaks to audiences today in this new production by Holmes.  The lavish sets and costumes just add to the pleasure.

A Woman of No Importance continues at the Festival Theatre until October 29th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

August 21st, 2016.

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