An Ideal Husband
Here's another revival, this time from the pen of Oscar Wilde and first performed back in 1895 in the late Victorian era.
The first thing that strikes you about Lindsay Posner's production is Stephen Brimson Lewis's elegant set. It's almost a monument to opulence, with practically everything in sight painted gold. That sets the scene very nicely because the main character here is one Sir Robert Chiltern, a man of of considerable wealth and a rising star in the foreign office. What isn't known about Sir Robert is the way he managed to accumulate his wealth. That is, until Mrs Cheveley turns up for dinner and promptly threatens Sir Robert with spilling the beans. Mrs Cheveley is a devious woman, determined to get what she wants. In this case she wants government support for a dubious canal project in Argentina in which she is an investor of some sort. If Sir Robert won't help her, she vows to reveal to the world the he obtained his money by passing on a state secret to a wealthy entrepreneur - a sort of insider trading deal.
Now that all sounds intriguing and a great set-up. But, it's hard not to feel that Wilde took the easy way out, because at the end of the play Sir Robert's misdemeanours are never made public and he's left with his good standing in tact and even enhanced to the extent that he is offered a seat in the cabinet. Don't get me wrong, though, the play is enormously enjoyable thanks to Wilde's elegant and gifted phraseology. Quips tumble out of the dialogue one almost on top of the other and no class is immune from Wilde's biting wit.
Lindsay Posner's solid and authoritative direction sets the environment for a capable cast to produce an enjoyable evening's entertainment. There are interesting parts here even for the minor characters since Wilde doles out the verbal quips very generously and not just to the leads. Elliott Cowan is Lord Goring, a member of the gentry who has little to occupy his time other than enjoying himself. Though lacking a serious work ethic, he nevertheless has a sense of charity and recognises goodness and that 'life is never fair'. Alexander Hanson plays Sir Robert Chiltern with a kind of civil service politeness until his position is threatened and then rails against his devoted wife as the cause of his possible ruin. There's good support from Caroline Blakiston as the ageing Lady Markby and Charles Key as the upstanding Earl of Caversham.
Wilde edited 'An Ideal Husband' after he left prison, but I'm not sure if this production is based on the original or the edited version. This is intriguing, because there are references in the dialogue to 'living the truth' and 'truth being a complex thing', which either means Wilde was already thinking along these lines as he wrote the original or edited in these references after his period of incarceration.
In spite of my reservations regarding the ending, the play still works well even as a historical piece. But it is in the elegant use of language where 'An Ideal Husband' really shines - the work of a linguistic genius who could literally turn the most modest phrase into a truly memorable and quotable remark.
" Hugely entertaining, a curious mixture of melodrama, Wilde’s distinctive epigrammatic wit and sudden moments of deeper feeling.."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"It offers a good evening and reminds us that Wilde's wit masked a vision of life."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Oscar Wilde’s political comedy enjoys a fresh burst of life and contemporary relevance."
John Thaxter for The Stage
"It’s a handsome revival, and very well played."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times