A Woman of No Importance

Plays and Players, December 1967, Hugh Leonard

For a brief delirious moment, when Michael Pennington came crashing on to the stage of the Vaudeville Theatre like a werewolf with rabies, one expected him to announce that there were UFOs – or, at the very least, Daleks – at the bottom of his garden. Even an appeal as to whether there was a play-doctor in the house would not have been incongruous within the context of the evening. But, unhappily, Mr Pennington, in his role of Gerald Arbuthnot, merely wished to inform us that Lord Illingworth had just offered him the position of private secretary. My expectations of extra-terrestrial phenomena may seem unduly optimistic… all the more so, seeing that the play in question was ‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Oscar Wilde; but there was extenuating circumstances, inasmuch as that Paul Dehn, who ‘adapted’ the play seemed determined to throw in everything except the kitchen sink drama.

Presumably, Mr Dehn’s intention was to render what is, after all, fifth-rate Wilde suitable for a modern audience. On reading the original, with its great windy stretches of purple rhetoric, one longs for the coruscating saltiness of, say ‘East Lynn’; and our hearts go out to Mr Dehn, if only because, or so they say, it is the thought that counts. There is hardly anything wrong with the adaptation as such; but when faced with a ruin, one should either leave it alone or knock it down. To try and shore it up with bricks from more sightly buildings can only result in this case of a kind of Oscar Memorial far more grotesque than Epstein’s.

Mr Dehn’s restorative hand is in evidence everywhere. He has reduced the number of settings by half, and the number of acts from four to three, greatly to his credit, he has turned a minor character – the Archdeacon – into a comic creation of such gentle hilarity as to out frock Canon Chasuble. Enlarged from Wilde’s thumbnail sketch, the Archdeacon prattles ceaselessly about his (unseen) wife; and, by the time her various ailments and afflictions have been enumerated – and they range from headache to total paralysis – she has emerged as the funniest off-stage character since Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’. Not so successful is Mr Dehn’s master plan: to prune ruthlessly the melodramatic excesses of the plot, and fill in the resultant gaps with so many epigrams that the play, as it now stands, will be retitled ‘The Most of Wilde’. Some of the epigrams are borrowed from other Wildean works: some are presumably Mr Dehn’s own inventions: and, as for others, one would need a copy of the text, a dictionary of quotations and a research scholarship to track them down. But the pastiche is skilfully done: and my only grumble is that the play itself gets bogged down in an endless swamp of aphoristic chatter. Shaw got away with it because his talk-ins were about something; Mr Dehn doesn’t, because his dialogues are about everything. At least Oscar knew when to stop.

How strange it is that the urbane Wilde could have written such a line as ‘Stop, Gerald, stop! He is your own father!’ And it even stranger that Mr Dehn should have retained it. The play is so hopelessly out of date by now that the wicked Lord Illingworth seems rather a gentle soul, despite Tony Britton’s habit of curling his lip villainously and so relentlessly that one gets the impression that he has had it permanently waved. But one could sympathise with even the most dastardly cur in Burke’s Peerage, when his vis-à-vis happens to be Mrs Arbuthnot, as played by Phyllis Calvert. She rants on about her ‘shame’ of twenty years previously with such shrill insistence that one can only suspect that she rather enjoyed it at the time; and when Mr Britton comes to reclaim his natural son – which he does with the furtive air of a clergyman trying to borrow a copy of ‘Fanny Hill’ – Miss Calvert squeaks her disdain at him with such elfin fury as to make us wonder what Lord Illingworth ever saw in her in the first place. As the son in question, Michael Pennington was a proper bastard – literally speaking.

This was one of those productions which features the magic words ‘Six Stars in…’ in lights outside the theatre. Which rather reminds us of Joxer’s query: ‘What is the stars?’ but the billing, if inaccurate, isn’t important. Generally, the playing here is on a high level, even if only Pauline Jameson, as Mrs Allonby, possesses the nicety of style to deliver an epigram without making it sound like De Gaulle at his most immortal. Diane Hart was a gorgeously twee Lady Sturfield, while James Hayter walked away with the evening as the Archdeacon. (How revealing it is that the biggest laughs went to pieces of character acting, as opposed to purely verbal witticisms.)  There was a beautifully doddering Sir John from George Desmond; but the prudish Hester, Portland Mason seemed ill at ease: the character is such a stick, however, that one could hardly blame her.

Malcolm Farquhar’s direction was sluggish and did little to overcome the general stasis on the one hand, and the frantic melodramatics on the other. The sets were awful. And evening, I fear, of no importance.

Return to A Woman of No Importance