Amongst the grand sort of critics whose opinions must be italicized as opinions, A Woman of No Importance is one of Oscar Wilde’s weaker plays. It doesn’t have the salacious Biblical scandal of Salome, the irreverent quotability of The Importance of Being Earnest or the witty, Wildean poise of An Ideal Husband. But that’s just the irrelevant waffle of the terribly self-important. A Woman of No Importance is brilliant. By turns funny and dramatic, it’s as worthy as anything else of Wilde’s oeuvre. This is all the more the case with the Magdalen Players’ garden play production. Not to be all gushing, but I it might just be the best Wilde production I’ve ever seen, West End included. Those who like unkind reviews, look away now.
I’ll need to justify myself, or else be accused of the same sort of grandiose opinion I’ve just lampooned. But through pitch-perfect casting and direction, the Magdalen Players have taken a great play and elevated it enormously. The play is often criticised for not taking off until the arrival of Mrs Arbuthnot part way through Act 2. But this production avoids that problem. Partly, that’s through the sumptuousness of the setting – there are few more lovely places to spend a late spring evening then an Oxford Master’s Garden. But much more importantly, it’s through the talented work of Director Henry Sleight and his cast and crew. Sleight’s deft handling of the script gives the production a momentum all of its own, and his willingness to keep the cast active on stage avoids the talky scenes from being staid and stuffy.
The play starts in stereotypically Wildean fashion: a country house brimming with an assortment of upper-class caricatures deep in conversation . The cast handle the wit with uniform aplomb, and I wish I could praise each individually, but there are a few standouts. Oliva Krauze makes a brilliantly bonkers hostess Lady Hunstanton. She has a great handle on the character’s forgetful running gag; fortunately she remains firmly endearing and not irritating. Tatiana Gilfillan makes a hilariously hoity-toity Lady Caroline, and her wonderful comic timing makes for some great deadpan moments. Imogen Front makes for a suitably devilish Mrs Allonby. The ying to her yang is Flora Blisset’s wonderfully earnest Hester Worsley. Both her and Front make their respective monologues real highlights of the play: the contrast of American morality and English laissez-faire makes for a delightful combination . That’s the spread of an excellent cast, who take each role, however small, and shine in their own unique way.
But the highest praise must be saved for the tragic central familial triangle of James Geddes’ Gerald, Ben Gregson’s Lord Illingworth and Amy McCall’s Mrs Arbuthnot. Geddes makes a nuanced performance out of what a lesser actor might have stereotyped as a bumbling Tim Nice-But-Dim. His portrayal shows a progression and evolution that is not only deeply emotionally satisfying but displays real talent. Gregson, meanwhile, makes Illingworth a right piece of work. He perfectly captures the character’s deadly caddishness, working him down from a charming lady-killer at the start of the play to a grotesque bully by the end. You can’t help but want to cheer when he gets a slap from Mrs Abuthnot. McCall is simply brilliant – the best live performance I’ve seen in any Wilde production, hands down. The tragic dutiful sadness she conveys brings out Arbuthnot’s overwhelming shame. The nuance of her expressions and the concision of her reactions, coupled with Wilde’s powerful writing, make her powerful performance at the play’s climax in Act IV a tour de force, and clear highlight. I was almost tearful. McCall can be very proud, and hopefully will go on to even greater performances soon.
So Director Henry Sleight and his crew have pulled off an undoubted triumph of excellent direction, staging and acting. Sat in Wilde’s old college, the late evening English sun glimmering down, provided with such a theatrical feast, we were very lucky indeed – and I’m sure Wilde would have heartily approved. And if that isn’t a terribly self-important opinion, I don’t know what is.