Despite being known to divide Wilde fans, A Woman of No Importance is undeniably witty throughout, though it is surely a play of more substance than its pithy one –liners. The latest production, which opens at the Gate this week promises to honour the play’s natural comedy, without neglecting the keen moral undertow purposefully instilled within it. Patrick Mason, director and familiar name no doubt to many Dublin theatre-goers, is at the helm. We caught up with him to discuss how rehearsals for the play are shaping up, and why he thinks that a hundred years after it was written, A Woman of No Importance is still very much worth the watch.
So Patrick, at this point in preparations rehearsals are obviously really draining on the actors, but what about in terms of directing it – do you feel like it’s all coming together?
Yes – I mean it’s actually quite a big show in terms of the elements of design and lighting and all that so we’re just at the beginning of the process of putting all those elements together. We’ve got a run this afternoon in which we’re starting to put in the music; I’m working with Dennis Doherty on the sound and music stuff. So all in all it’s coming together but it’s quite a lot of ‘stuff’ you know. But no, I think it’s all adding up!
And how did it all come about that you decided to put on the play – has it been a long time in the planning?
Well, Michael Colgan [Artistic Director at the Gate] and I – we talked about doing it last year in fact, but we made a final decision on it just in December there, so then we started sort of, piecing together the production team and the casting. So the preparations go back a long way.
You’ve got long ties to both the Gate and the Abbey – are you enjoying staging another play at the Gate? How do you feel about it as a venue?
I like it – it’s a lovely theatre, a very audience-friendly theatre – the intimacy of it. It’s a very pleasant auditorium. So over the years, I mean I’ve been lucky enough to do… I think this is my fourteenth or fifteenth production for the Gate – it’s a theatre I’m very familiar with.
And are you pleased with all your choices when it came to casting?
Oh Gosh yes. I mean one of the reasons I like a long lead into any production is that it gives you more time to think about casting. It’s a true thing I think they say that casting is 90 percent of a director’s work; it takes time, but I’m very happy with the company we put together. There are some very familiar faces for Gate audiences, but also there are some new faces, and that’s always important – because we’re always looking to bring new talent on. One of the things about plays like A Woman of No Importance, is that there’s a cast of fourteen, and of course there are three generations on stage – grandparents, parents and children, so you’re looking at casting from the playing age of seventy right through to the playing age of eighteen. That means you’ve got a huge range of/or potential range of possibilities for actors. And it is actually of great importance, that these plays, plays with big casts, like this, are able to be done.
Is the production going to be quite a straight run of the script, or how are you looking to play it?
Yes, I mean it’s a play within the society setting, and the particular values of that society and the morality of that society are extremely important to the story of the play. So I’m setting it in 1893, in its year of composition because I want to heighten this idea of this very restricted, moral society that the play built up. And so the way we represent that society has a slight edge to it, but it is very much an evocation of that high Victorian, very class bound, morally repressed kind of society.
And what plays did you enjoy seeing when you were growing up – were you a Wilde fan from the start?
Well I grew up in a slightly different kind of period, given that I was at school in the sixties, and I started going to the theatre in the late sixties, when I was at school in England, so we were near Bristol and I used to go regularly to the Bristol Old Vic which was then a repertory company. So in those days those repertory companies did a very broad repertoire of classical theatre; Shakespeare, Sheridan, Wilde, right through to West End hits, contemporary plays, so my theatre going was really formed by a very broad repertoire of classical theatre through to kind of contemporary plays – Alan Ayckbourn at one end, and with Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde at the other. And so that big repertoire has always interested me so say the plays that I’ve directed over the years, I mean the first play I did at the Gate in 1984 was A Woman of No Importance. The reason why we did it then was that I was hoping to do a series of plays by Anglo-Irish writers; I wanted to do Wilde, I wanted to do Sheridan, and Shaw. And with Michael Colgan, right through the eighties, I was able to do the productions of all those writers. At the same time, at the Abbey I was working with new writing, with plays, by say Tom MacIntyre, Frank McGuinness and the balance in my work has always been to try and do all the repertoires, to keep the classical repertoire in sight but also to work on new writing. And I suppose that goes back to my introduction to the theatre, in that new writing is at the lifeblood of the theatre, but the whole richness of English-speaking theatre is that we have a huge repertoire of very fine plays. And I’ve always felt as a director I wanted to be engaged in both. Though over the years, funnily enough, because of my long association with the Abbey, new writing has loomed very very large.
So is it nice to return to an Oscar Wilde play at this point?
Yes, exactly, exactly. These are very sophisticated plays and they’re multi-layered; very complex. They’re quite challenging too because over the years, some things we find a bit weird or we find a bit extreme or strange, so you’ve always got to be aware of mediating between the contemporary audience and a play that is maybe a hundred, two hundred years old. You’ve got to try always to animate them in terms of a contemporary audience – that doesn’t mean to say doing them in modern dress and things like that – that’s too literal, it means about how do they work in terms of psychology of character, in terms of what an action might mean – a hundred years ago, or what it might mean now. But you know – the past is foreign country, as another man said, and it’s a very interesting country to visit. I think we’ve become slightly too obsessed with ourselves – the best reason for looking at the plays of the past is to try and understand where we are now. I think they give good context, and they give perspective, when you get them right.
In that respect then, with A Woman of No Importance being so anchored in the English Upper Classes, how relevant do you think it is to modern-day Dublin?
Well, Oscar Wilde is already immensely popular, a bit like Downton Abbey in that it’s very very popular and always has been, to watch upper class people behaving badly. Everyone likes that. But what’s interesting about the play is that fundamentally, you can’t separate it from that class or that class driven kind of society– but the actual themes go much deeper, and at the heart of it is the whole question of a very cruel morality which punished women for being immoral, for being single mothers, punished their children as illegitimates, and those two topics – sexual morality and the whole issue of illegitimacy are not that distant from us you know. And the sort of moral constraints on society, the rather sort of strict, evangelical Christian sexual morality – well that is still with us – and that’s still causing trouble, you know, it still causes a lot of suffering and a lot of unnecessary suffering for women in particular. And so once you get through the external stuff, the play goes beyond just class structure, it goes much more into a question of morality in private life, society’s attitude towards sexuality and particularly towards women. So, on all those levels, it’s no museum piece. As I say one of the best reasons for visiting the past is to try and understand where we are now, and how we got to where we are now, and what gains we’ve made and what insights we’ve had but also to understand how we’re not disconnected from the past – in fact we are very connected to the past particularly in terms of religious teachings, moralities, and indeed ideas of society.
With so many themes then – or at least a more complicated story than it first appears, have you chosen to keep set design and costumes simplistic?
Well what I want to do is have enough to evoke a particular world, a particular society, but not too much so that we distract from the narrative, and from the ideas – I mean it’s not just a play about pretty frocks – there is a real argument, a real debate going on in this play about the nature of morality and religion in society – and all of that.
And finally, how do you feel about it as a Wilde play – is it one of your favourites?
Yes I think it is. The last act in particular is like an Ibsen play; it almost ends up as a domestic drama, and a very passionate and very intense one too. People say ‘we like Oscar when he’s being funny, and all that, but we don’t really like him when he’s trying to be dramatic and serious’. I like the challenge of that – I think it’s a very ambitious play – I think in one way it’s his most ambitious play because he’s trying to keep us amused and seduce us and be witty and clever, but he’s also trying to show us that underneath all this cleverness, there’s a seriousness to life which, sometimes you have to deal with. Now you could say some of the gear changes of the play are a bit abrupt or are difficult to negotiate, and they are – but they are negotiable, you can do it, and you can play it – and you can play it; with a cast as good as this, you can play all levels of the play, I think. That’s the challenge, and that makes it a really fascinating play to work on.
Previews of A Woman of No Importance begin at the Gate on the 19th of July. Opening Night is on the 24th of July, and the play runs until the 22nd of September. Tickets range in price from €15 to €35, and can be booked at www.gatetheatre.ie