An Ideal Husband
By Oscar Wilde
Vaudeville Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Ex-Globe Theatre supremo Dominic Dromgoole has a new company Classic Spring which has taken over the Vaudeville Theatre to present a year of starry revivals of Wilde. This is the fifth and the season completes with The Importance of Being Earnest, from July.
These ‘proscenium arch plays' as Dromgoole calls them are staged in traditional style with actors pushing downstage and declaiming their witticisms over the footlights. For some this will be a refreshing contrast to the Ivo van Hove's and Katie Mitchell's of this world but for others it represents a jolt from modern, TV-infused, ideas of naturalism.
Jonathan Church directs to these strictures and what it does do is allow us to luxuriate in the Wildean rhetoric. The downside is that before this intricately plotted melodrama shifts into gear it does sag rather during the extended set ups in Act One. Modern audiences, more accustomed to the fast rhythms of TV, will struggle during the longeurs.
Central to this approach is careful casting of experienced stars and here he has 81 year old Edward Fox and his son Freddie giving us a winning father-son double act which fits them both like a glove. Father as the gruff old Earl with a twinkle in his eye and Freddie perfectly cast as the dandified Lord Goring, Wilde's alter ego, and bringing a maturity and deft comic timing to the part.
Despite the Victorian trimmings the plot could be ripped from the headlines as it centres on two things which never go out of fashion – fat cats in the Cabinet and conniving social climbers attempting to blackmail their way to the top. The insular world of London high society presented here mirrors today's Instagram one and is revealed as being no less narcissistic.
Wilde is always more difficult to pull off than directors expect and Church has cast a trio of pros who know not only how to set a bon mot spinning but can also bring a truth to the dialogue. Frances Barber spills out of luxurious scarlet gowns as the wealthy, scheming, Mrs Cheveley who has been trading her erotic capital for many a year. Nathaniel Parker as Sir Robert Chiltern has the smug charm of the ambitious prospective Cabinet member with everything seemingly in place but this one is liable to lose it all when past shady dealings catch up with him. Susan Hampshire gets all the applause of the evening as the engaging doyenne, Lady Markby, who as one character aptly puts it "talks more and says less that anyone I've ever met".
At its heart Wilde cautions against making false idols of anyone, as Lady Chiltern has done with her husband. It also mercilessly pokes fun at the British establishment and it is sobering to think that within just three months of its premiere in 1895 this play had to close as the establishment had sought its revenge on Wilde – their great, fallen, Court Jester.
An Ideal Husband will be broadcast live to cinemas on Tuesday June 5 – see www.oscarwildecinema.com for details – and will transfer to Theatre Royal Bath from July 18 to August 4.