Saturday 23 September 2017

Theatre: A woman of no importance

gate theatre, dublin

brian lavery

Never too sweet, reliably piquant, and always with a smooth finish -- there's nothing like Oscar Wilde served up by the Gate. So it's a surprise that the writer hasn't been staged on Parnell Square for the last five years.



This is one of Wilde's lesser-known high society comedies, most likely due to its split personality. Halfway through, the action and tone lurch awkwardly between razor-tongued parlour banter to the raw emotion of a distinctly unfunny family tragedy.

It kicks off at a party thrown by Lady Hunstanton (Marion O'Dwyer), where the entertainment is dominated by Lord Illingworth (Stephen Brennan), a rich playboy who struts like a peacock despite his looming middle age, and Mrs Allonby (Cathy Belton), the only woman in Illingworth's league when it comes to conversational gymnastics.

For audiences familiar with Wilde, there is not much plot to speak of, other than Illingworth's decision to hire Gerald Arbuthnot (James Murphy) as his secretary.

Wilde employs one-dimensional supporting roles to emphasise the shallowness of a culture where no one had more depth than a cucumber sandwich. The women squawk and squeak in contortedly posh accents and sling insults. These one-trick-ponies are slickly directed by Patrick Mason, and perform their tricks very well.

It's all harmless until Mrs Arbuthnot (Ingrid Craigie), the ironically dubbed woman of the title, comes along.

In terms of presence, Craigie is out-gunned by Brennan and Belton. So it's just as well that Mason shifts focus towards the Victorian treatment of women and challenging parent-child relationships. Instead of the superficial ballet where sincerity is feared even more than syphilis, we're now in a bare-knuckled brawl, where love, disgust and passion are boldly worn on sleeves.

This puritanism is most embodied by the American heiress Hester Worsley (Aoibhín Garrihy), Gerald's love interest who becomes a frighteningly evangelical zealot for sincerity by the end of the play.

Her black-and-white views are echoed by costume designer Peter O'Brien and set designer Eileen Diss, who intentionally used a monochromatic palette.

Each silver dress looks fantastic, but the colourless aesthetic doesn't do justice to Wilde. The society he despised and adored may have been shallow, but at least it was entertaining -- and no fate in the world is worse than boredom.

Irish Independent

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