Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
A Man of No Importance,Music of Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Book by Terrence McNally. Production directed by Barbara Hughes with Musical Direction by Janet Provan, Williamstown Little Theatre (Melbourne). Seen 13 July 2019.
I elected to see this play largely because it was set in Dublin, and because of its title’s link to Oscar Wilde’s play, A Woman of No Importance. I imagined (wrongly) that Terrence McNally was Irish. As far as I can tell McNally is not even Irish American, but his play certainly very credibly created a modus vivendi of a more innocent Dublin of 1964 when it was possible to be in the closet, gay, and almost totally innocent about one’s sexuality. Or even if it wasn’t actually like this, it was made warmly and comically possible. And McNally could, in my humble opinion, be a Dub. It would be marvelous to be able to claim him as he’s not only won a stack of prestigious theatre awards, among them 4 Tony Awards, an Emmy, 4 Drama Desk Awards, and stacks of nominations, including for a Pulitzer. This play is not one of the standouts, but I have no trouble understanding why in 2018 he was elected a member and inducted intothe American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prestigious body that honours artists in the USA.
The play has unhappily already finished its run, so I don’t need to be careful about spoilers.It takes a situation which would have seemed highly topical in 1994 when the film version (starring Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker, Michael Gambon and Rufus Sewell) was made, and even more so when it became a musical. It was the musical which was on offer at Williamstown, and it’s a huge piece with 29 characters played by 17 actors. What’s more they had to be able to sing, and to resist the many winter bugs circulating this year. If you’ve not been to Williamstown Little Theatre, you probably have not seen 17 people and 3 musicians on a smaller stage. It was a logistical challenge of the highest order. Barb Hughes and Janet Provan assembled a superb singing ensemble – the range of voices (from huge to modest, sweet and true) and their ability to harmonise what was often moderately demanding were impressive.
The plot is disarmingly innocent, involving a troupe of enthusiastic amateur thespians under the direction of Alfie Byrne (played by Tim Murphy with understated sweetness) who is obsessed with the story and plays of Oscar Wilde. He plans to stage the outrageous Salomé, in the face of rank incomprehension and clerical resistance. His actors are temperamentally much farther from understanding the play even than its director, and they all have very mixed motives in doing so. Without knowing it, Alfie’s monomania has much to do with his gender identity, and his unfolding awareness of his gayness subtly becomes the narrative arc, spurred on by a spectral Oscar Wilde ( a role played by a veteran of the Williamstown stage, Ellis Ebell) which generates much bitter-sweet comedy. His sister, for instance, has put her own romantic plans on hold until her brother is married, never for a moment imagining he might not want to marry, and most of the rest of the cast also labour under this illusion. However, once the cast find out about his Alfie’s feelings, there is subtle redemption, as knowing Alfie is to know he has nothing to be forgiven for and their love runs deeper than their indoctrination.
Another rich strand of comedy arises from the yawning gulf between the incompetence of Alfie’s acting troupe, St Imelda’s Players, and the ambitiousness of the project, Salomé, a play that must deal centrally with the head of a saint on a platter and a wilful erotic goddess who can dance entrancingly. His leading lady, Rebecca Symonds, looks the part, but starts extremely unpromisingly with a reading, and finds belatedly the emotional lineaments that illumine the role. She, like Alfie, has her own demons to exorcise and is discomforted by Alfie’s (and the cast’s) innocence. There are lots of jokes about actors and acting, the petty jealousies that beset many a theatrical enterprise, and it was great to be part of an audience who understood this aspect of the show intimately and responded viscerally and with relish. Despite the satire directed at thespians, this play is in fact an Ode to what the theatre offers individuals for their soul’s sustenance and for their imaginations.
Dublin in 1964 is a place where sexual repression is rife, and the director, in a mistressful stroke, has the outrageous Oscar doubled with the Monsignor, a detail the costumier, Bronwen Vandali, picked up and contrived to double also in her rich purple and magenta detailing. One of the very funniest scenes in the play is the confession, when Brian Christopher as the priest expects to hear a more salacious confession than he does and is disappointed by the low quality of the sins he is confessed: ‘is that all?’, he more than once complains, brushing away the sins on offer in the hope of something that will rock him. Christopher, a master of timing and comedy, also cunningly doubles as the policeman and the censorious ‘fat controller’ of the bus depot. There was much to please in these doublings.
This play was a delight. It clearly moved many in the audience, and it took me back to a society that predated sexualisation, that hadn’t yet awoken to the joys of the flesh. It evoked a communal innocence that is hard to imagine in our hard-bitten world, but it also showed how harshly judgmental and violent such a world could be, and did not resile from that viciousness. I can forgive McNally for not being Irish because of his immersion in the work of Oscar Wilde and his delight in the craic, the mores and benignity of his depiction of Dubs, and his social justice agendas.
Frances has been a theatre-critic and theatre-maker since the early 1980s.