Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Jonathan Church
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Glancing at the names of the main characters in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, all bar one of them titled, a natural reaction is to ask how on Earth can the problems of this cross-section of the Victorian aristocracy be relevant to modern life? It is only when their problems turn out to relate to raging hypocrisy, corruption in high places and “historical” misdemeanours that we realise that not too much has really changed.
This revival of the 1895 play is presented as part of Dominic Dromgoole’s year-long Wilde season at the Vaudeville Theatre. The too virtuous to be true Lady Chiltern (Sally Bretton) thinks that she has found the ideal husband and the nation thinks that it has found the ideal politician in him. However, the seemingly upright and incorruptible Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker) has a dark secret in his past which comes back to haunt him and threatens to bring him down. The play asks whether he can he be forgiven and allowed to carry on with his private and public lives.
Wilde could be warning us that, if we demand standards of our politicians that we cannot live up to ourselves, we get the leaders that we deserve. Parallels between Sir Robert’s plight and the writer’s own precarious position in the 1890s are clear to be seen, but director Jonathan Church’s production allows the play’s serious themes only to give depth to its comedy and never to dampen it.
In his earlier play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde gives a nod to feminist causes by introducing as the catalyst for the action Mrs. Erlynne, a fiercely independent woman who is prepared to be ruthless in order to succeed in a male-dominated world. Here, Mrs. Cheveley, a blackmailer and a thief, has similar traits, although she is much more vicious. Frances Barber makes her deliciously venomous, in one scene appearing resplendent in all scarlet against the pastel shades of the set.
In this form, Barber is not easy to eclipse, but Freddie Fox does just that with a superb comic performance as the nonchalant and amoral Viscount Goring, friend and confidante of both Chilterns and “the idlest man in London”. Promiscuous and vain (“to love oneself is the beginning of a lifetime romance”), Goring gets the lion’s share of the play’s Wildean witticisms and Fox cashes them in for the lion’s share of the laughs. His disapproving father, the Earl of Caversham, is played in typically pompous style by Edward Fox; yes, father and son play father and son, a touch which adds considerably to the humour of a dad’s constant put-downs of his errant offspring.
Susan Hampshire as the sharp-tongued Lady Markby and Faith Omole as Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, a possible match for Goring, are both splendid. Simon Higlett’s elegant sets and lavish costumes help to give the production a solid and conventional feel, although there are times in the first two acts when Church could have livened things up by taking risks and thinking more outside the box. That said, there are no such reservations about a hilarious third act, which has hints of Feydeau, when Wilde’s writing, Barber and the two Foxes join forces to terrific effect.
When the laughter in this delightful revival dies down, Wilde’s pleas for forgiveness of past indiscretions linger in the mind, tinged with the sad irony that the playwright’s own fall from grace was to begin with his arrest on indecency charges even before this play had completed its initial run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
Runs until 14 July 2018 | Image: Marc Brenner