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Sunday 20 April 2014

Wilde's lesson for all time

A Woman of No Importance rises gloriously above the plot's triteness

The wearying Irish inferiority complex with its claims of "relevance for modern Ireland" is conspicuously absent from the Gate's new production of Wilde's A Woman of No Importance. And as a result of director Patrick Mason's concentration on the play's integrity, it actually becomes a morality tale for all: how society plants the seeds of its own destruction when it is built on hypocrisy; tolerating immorality at the highest level provided it conforms to current fashion. In the 1880s in London, Wilde suggests, it was "the way things were done". In Ireland in 2012, it still is.

Wilde's weakness lies in his painting of all the good women in his plays as prigs: only the immoralistes are either interesting or amusing. But he makes up for the weakness with his driving belief in equality before the law, before your god and before society.

The plot is as trite as that of any melodrama: the son of a woman outside fashionable society is given preference by his mother's wealthy and aristocratic patron. The patron presents the boy to her equally fashionable friend, Lord Illingworth, as a suitable secretary, only for it to be revealed that the boy is Illingworth's illegitimate son: he had refused to marry the boy's mother, and in agony of betrayal she had taken her baby and left him.

The matter is resolved with justice and happiness, the boy finding love in the arms of a beautiful American heiress (a ghastly and boring prude, but then you can't have everything) and his mother gaining moral revenge on her betrayer, who is left grinding his unprincipled teeth in frustration and secret misery. But Wilde builds his inimitably lush garden of aphorisms and vicious observations on the unpromising brick wall of predictability and gives us a great, amusing, memorable play full of lessons for those willing to learn.

That's in a good production; and Patrick Mason's production is more than good, a symphony in more ways than one, with perfectly co-ordinated performances from his cast, costumes in shades of silver and grey that are thread- and mood-perfect from Peter O'Brien, and a set by Eileen Diss that transforms magically from the spaciously luxurious elegance of Lady Hunstanton's country house to the frowsty middle-class claustrophobia of Mrs Arbuthnot's little drawing room.

Ingrid Craigie and Stephen Brennan head the cast, both at the top of their considerable form, although Brennan needs to watch a tendency to declaim.

The support is pretty well breath-taking in its depth of characterisation, from -- in no particular order of merit -- Cathy Belton, Deirdre Donnelly, Aoibhin Garrihy, James Murphy, Marion O'Dwyer, Tom Hickey, Michael James Ford, Des Keogh, Aoibheann O'Hara, and "them downstairs" from Siobhan Cullen, David O'Brien and Jonathan Delaney Tynan.

******

Every Beckett production seems to throw up a new thought. With the Gate's production of Watt (at the Galway Arts Festival) it's wonderment that so much distilled misanthropy can be both so human and so humane.

The actor (and at this stage noted Beckett scholar) Barry McGovern has not so much adapted the novel for the stage, as taken its sprawling canvas of misery and miniaturised it.

He manages this partly by pretty well ignoring the section in which Watt is locked in an institution, allowing his ramblings in partial freedom as a manservant in Mr Knott's house to indicate the inevitability of incarceration.

Nothing happens ... with all the clarity of something, as Watt says of the Galls, father and son, who come to tune the piano, while the local children Art and Con religiously scoop up the scraps of Mr Knott's uneaten food for Kate the dog and her successors over the years, while Mrs Gorman the fishmonger calls on Thursdays for some inconclusive canoodling with Mr Knott and Mr Graves the gardener makes his several trips daily to the back door for tea and stout.

Listed like that, in a parody of the stream of consciousness lists in the original (it was Beckett's last Joyce- influenced work) it is a terrifying panoply of misery. It is also, of course, a parody of life in the Foxrock home of Beckett's parents. But McGovern and his director Tom Creed have gone to the heart of stifling misery and found its cruelly comic core.

Shambling in ill-fitting evening dress and too-large brown shoes, McGovern manages to shrivel and tower at the same time, self-mocking, bewildered but accepting of his lot as an outsider, a stranger in a world where everyone else finds a home, however bizarre. You laugh; it's only later that his tragedy rises to the surface of feeling. Wonderful theatre.

*****

John is in the office late at night; he's harassed. He's trying, it seems, to make sense of accounts that have got out of control. So far, so familiar. But there's an extra element: he's being watched by a man called Frank, who simply will not shut up.

That's the setting for Overtime, a new, funny, interesting, intelligent and sobering play by Jane McCarthy at the New Theatre in Dublin.

First we think that Frank may be a silent partner in the company; then that he is the voice of conscience. Then he becomes a lot more real, much more than a presence in John's head. And over the course of an hour, the reality of Frank's presence emerges as John finally acknowledges that the mess on his desk is not just beyond his comprehension; it has also put him beyond corporate salvation.

And that's the only kind of salvation John wants. It's all a bit reminiscent of Mamet; but I would argue that it's actually a lot more credible than Mamet, because it has humanity. And the dialogue is a lot more entertaining and thoughtful, even if it occasionally gets a bit sententious.

Stewart Roche plays the beleaguered John and Gerard Byrne his nemesis, Frank. They are directed splendidly by Caroline FitzGerald in Phillipa Kavanagh's set which is imaginatively lit by John Crudden with shadowed suggestions at various times of prison bars and a suicide rope. Original music is by Paul Simon McCarthy.

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