Director Eda Holmes pulls a wicked doubleheader this season at the Shaw Festival, taking on two of the strongest female protagonists in the theatrical canon: the title character in George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and Mrs. Arbuthnot in Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance.” These women epitomize femininity and feminism in very different ways – an often misinterpreted tenet of the feminist ideal. Without apology or fear of risk, they get information.
Shaw’s take examines the lengths to which a single, independent mother would go to assert herself in a male-dominated society – by playing them at their own game. In Wilde’s demurer take, we watch Mrs. Arbuthnot, an vocally confident but demonstrably cautious single mother, nearly succumb to the life prescribes by the patriarchy. Down with patriarchy!
Both triumph, and on their own terms. So does Holmes.
She hypothesizes these women in more modern eras, where political and social contexts skew characters’ judgement and consequences. Spoiler alert: they still win. In “A Woman of No Importance,” Holmes sets the action in 1951 Britain, updating from Wilde’s original 1894. This positions the women, doyennes and debutantes of the social class, in an era of great reformation, when post-war conservatism revived feminine constructions and expectations. Dior’s New Look fashions revived the feminine silhouette following wartime fabric restrictions; these dresses helped women look and feel feminine again, which in turn helped them embrace their own feminism.
This is a spectacular move on Holmes’s part, though it’s hard to imagine Mrs. Arbuthnot’s strong hold on her 20-year-old son Gerald being as ordinary in 1951 as it might have been in 1894. When Gerald is offered a position as an apprentice in Lord Illingworth’s employ, his mother, for her own rightful reasons, tries to end their professional engagement. Lord Illingworth brings with him a secret from Mrs. Arbuthnot’s past, threatening her right to personal peace and progress.
Fiona Byrne is an intriguing Mrs. Arbuthnot. This is my first time with this play, but I’m going to guess that Byrne offers a more grounded, working-class approach to the role. She processes the many bogus claims of femininity and social order being lobbed at her, from both women and men, with facial strain and visible discomfort. Is she the only person hearing what’s being said? Is she the last sane person left on the planet? Yes, she might be.
Wade Bogert-O’Brien, who also appears in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” as almost the exact opposite of a kind of man, is an endearingly juvenile young Gerald. He and his mother have always been on their own together, and his protective love for her informs every difficult decision he has to make. Bogert-O’Brien can play boyish charm quite easily – Google him; you’re welcome – but also asserts himself quite well as an ambitious young man. The world is his oyster. Ahh, to be young again.
Leading the women’s caucus is Lady Hunstanton, the hostess with the mostess. Fiona Reid is everything you want her to be in this hilarious role and so much more, a sort of cunning Glynis Johns. This being her estate, Lady Hunstanton enforces house rules for conversational conduct, no matter how contradictory and ill-informed they may be. Reid laces Lady Hunstanton with plenty of kindness, too, but enough innocent ignorance to brand her the clown. She delights too easily in being disengaged.
Even when Miss Worsley, a politically forward American girl, calls these British women out for their petty, social refereeing, Lady Hunstanton accepts her assertive ways but laughs off her claims. Julie Course is a headstrong and tireless Miss Worsley, a formidable scene partner to the fierce Reid, whose equaled only by bosom buddy Lady Pontefract – these names! That role belongs to 30-year Shaw veteran Mary Haney, who steals every scene with little visible effort. What a gem she is. And what characters these are, despite many of their actions.
Mocking is a juicy spectator sport. One can gain intellectual points and redeem them for social prizes, but they’re worthless. Their game is sour and hurtful and brings the exact opposite of progress to these women’s lives. They may poke holes in their husbands’ mannish idiocy with grace, but they do their own gender a worse disservice by perpetuating their own oppression. It is not progress, no matter how new their look. Holmes’s concept would probably work just as well as set in today’s spar-happy world. Then we might surmise the same lesson from Wilde’s wise characterizations: that jerks hurt and love trumps hate.
3.5 stars out of 4
“A Woman of No Importance,” by Oscar Wilde, in repertory through Oct. 29 at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake., Ont. Tickets are $53 to $117. Visit shawfest.org or call (800) 511-SHAW.