Theatre review: A Woman of No Importance, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Mark Meadows as Lord Illingworth, Tim Gibson as Gerald Arbuthnot and Katy Stephens as Mrs Arbuthnot
Mark Meadows as Lord Illingworth, Tim Gibson as Gerald Arbuthnot and Katy Stephens as Mrs Arbuthnot
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IF you ever imagined that double standards in sexual morality were a thing of the past, then I guess the politics of the last three years might have been enough to dissuade you. The chances of a female politician with a Trump or Johnson-like private life being excused and indulged in the same way are minimal; and although much has changed in the 125 years since Oscar Wilde’s A Woman Of No Importance first opened in London, the fact that those changes have not gone far enough still give the play a stinging relevance to the times we live in.

A Woman of No Importance, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ****

At the centre of the drama stands a man called Lord Illingworth, a British establishment figure who is not exactly a politician, but who nonetheless wields social power, status and acceptance far beyond anything his moral character might deserve. Middle-aged and unmarried, he pursues affairs with young married women, delivers a stream of bleakly cynical witty repartee about the battle of the sexes, and avoids commitment at all costs; and only when fate throws him into an unexpected encounter with a woman he seduced and betrayed in his youth – the supposedly widowed “Mrs Arbuthnot,” who has brought up her son alone – does he discover a certain affection for the boy he fathered. Rachel Arbuthnot, though, will not let her son go into Illingworth’s amoral world; and stages the fight of her life to humiliate Illingworth, and send him packing.

All of this is eloquently captured in Dominic Dromgoole’s production, first seen in London in 2017, and now repackaged for a UK tour. Katy Stephens is blazingly powerful as the wounded Mrs Arbuthnot, full of both rage and self-reproach. Mark Meadows is an impressively well-observed Lord Illingworth; and two mighty grande dames of the British stage, Lisa Goddard and Isla Blair, are in fine form as genial host Lady Hunstanton and her formidable guest Lady Caroline, with Scottish stage veteran John Bett offering a touching cameo as Lady Caroline’s thoroughly defeated husband, Sir John.

The jolly entr’acte musical interludes, featuring Roy Hudd’s dotty Reverend Daubney and a four-piece household concert party, are perhaps a shade twee and self-congratulatory, given the play’s serous theme; but they add an enjoyable tinge of popular culture to this lavish and thought-provoking production, which leaves us wondering whether a latter-day Rachel would show as much moral resistance, when corrupt wealth and power come knocking, and offering a more privileged future for her beloved child.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances tomorrow; and Perth Theatre, 22-26 October.