There are few more apt choices for a Magdalen College garden play than Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. Light-hearted, witty, and finished off with a healthy dose of melodrama, the play promises to be a perfect remedy for those exam-induced Trinity term blues. When I speak later to the director, Henry Sleight, he points out the play’s suitability for the setting (the President’s Garden in Magdalen College), as it is uninhibited by theatrical limits. And, of course, Magdalen College being the alma mater of Oscar Wilde, the choice is also an overt nod to the college’s esteemed alumnus. Indeed, the Oscar Wilde connections don’t stop there. As she takes me to the rehearsal room, the producer, Amber Seaward, informs me in the past they have even had the privilege of rehearsing in the college’s so-called ‘Oscar Wilde Room’ – something which strikes me as wonderfully meta.
A satirical examination of 19th century English nobility, A Woman of No Importance transports the viewer into a world of Lords, Ladies, Archdeacons and flirtatious dandies – a world where gossip is the main pastime and scandal bubbles beneath the surface. The events of the play commence at the Hunstanton Estate, headed by the overbearing and snobbish Lady Hunstanton (Olivia Krauze). The key players are: Gerald Arbuthnot (James Geddes), a young clerk at the estate; Hester Worsley (Flora Blissett), a young American Puritan who is visiting the estate and who is – naturally – Gerald’s love interest; Mrs Arbuthnot (Gerald’s unmarried mother, played by Amy McCall); and Lord Illingworth (Greg Benson), a powerful and flirtatious man of means, who at the beginning of the play intends to make Gerald his secretary (news which delights Gerald greatly).
The production company, Magdalen Players, grants me a preview of the show just over a week before the first performance. There is no obvious sign of pressure quite yet: upon entering their rehearsal room just across the road from Magdalen College, I am greeted to friendly, communal atmosphere. I spy a box of chocolate muffins and a Victoria Sponge cake on a table off to the side (I am informed later than it is the Assistant Director Emily Osborne’s birthday). When I enter, the cast and crew are all standing in a circle, which I assume is a pre-rehearsal discussion – or perhaps ritual. At the instructions of Sleight to begin scene, they disperse over the room, all armed with copies of the script, and I watch on as the rehearsal of the fourth and final act begins.
The act begins with a long-winded discussion between the Lady Hunstanton and Mrs Allonby (played by Imogen Front), in which hilarious quips and social commentaries are exchanged (“Most women in London, nowadays, seem to furnish their rooms with nothing but orchids, foreigners, and French novels,” declares Lady Hunstanton). Several chairs have been commandeered to function as the furniture in Mrs Arbuthnot’s sitting room.
Front is particularly convincing as the flirtatious and amoral Mrs Allonby, reclining back with a sigh (on what I imagine to be a chaise longue) as she laments the fact that that Lord Illingworth won’t allow her to be his secretary as she is not “serious enough”. Krauze’s performance too is worthy of praise. As the high-pitched, babbling Lady Hunstanton, a character essentially a caricature of herself, she drives the conversation animatedly, barely pausing for breath, sitting on the edge of her seat. Her speech delivers “rushed conversational whiplash”, as Sleight aptly describes it.
Without spoiling the plot by detailing the intricacies of the act I previewed, all I will say is that, as the fourth act unfolds, it is clear the plot consists of a slow gradient from comedy to tragedy – in Sleight’s words, the play will leave the audience feeling “sucker punched”. To be sure, the play probes some deeper and darker themes – from the wicked side of dandy figure, to the disparaging view of illegitimate children at the time – which Sleight is keen to tease out in the performance.
Indeed, what strikes me immediately when watching the rehearsal is not only how involved Sleight is in the minutiae of the production, but, more importantly, how he makes sure everyone else is equally as involved. Upon my arrival, both Sleight and Osborne apologise in advance for any interjections that might ensue during the rehearsal, but they don’t need to. Those which do occur stem from an evident familiarity with the play and impress me greatly. With a copy of the play on his lap, full of post-it notes and pencil scribblings, and pen in hand, Sleight frequently stops the performance to offer constructive criticism. I watch on as he advises the actors to emphasise the nuance of a certain line, to change the pace of its delivery, or be more conscious of their movement across the stage.
Being a farcical satire, punchlines are naturally – and rightly – given attention, and they are rehearsed until the nuance is exactly right. Where the potential interpretation of a line is unclear, Sleight invites the fellow members of the cast and crew to offer their thoughts on how the meaning should be conveyed – he tells me later that he is averse to micromanaging as a director, instead more interested in listening and learning from the people around him.
Ultimately the involved directing style is a promising one. It is indicative of the thoroughness of the production and how seriously Sleight and the rest of his team are taking this, in an attempt to make it the best production it can possibly be. The show which the audience will observe next week is the product of hours of poring over the script, of teasing out the subtle comedic nuances for a seamless performance. On the topic of the script, I am intrigued to hear Sleight’s thoughts on its relevance today and so steal him away to talk about it whilst the rest of the cast and crew eat the aforementioned birthday cake. I cannot help but wonder – is A Woman of No Importance out of date? Are its jokes too crude for a modern audience? How much has Sleight adapted it?
Sleight’s response is further indicative of the thoroughness of the production and the thought that has gone into it. Yes, the script has been adapted – but for good reason. In his words, when a character who isn’t redeemable in the play’s eyes (such as the unscrupulous Mrs Allonby) makes an offensive remark, Sleight has cut it from the script for fear of legitimising such views. An example he gives me is Lady Hunstanton’s unsavoury remark about domestic abuse from the second act. “It’s not just that they’re remarks which might cause offense,” Sleight points out, “it’s because they are horrendous things to say.”
Ultimately, my preview of A Woman of No Importance promises an informed, thorough and – more importantly – hilarious production in fourth week. I leave the rehearsal with a chocolate muffin in hand and make a mental note to book my ticket for the opening night.
A Woman of No Importance is being performed at the President’s Garden, Magdalen College from Weds 22nd – Sat 25th May (4th Week).