Of all Oscar Wilde’s plays, An Ideal Husband is arguably the most socially and politically relevant to the modern day. In post-war Britain, the rise of the tabloid newspaper and the political scandal appear to have gone hand-in-hand, and while Profumo-esque sex scandals will always be stock-in-trade for these publications, we are increasingly concerned with how MPs make their money. From the “cash for questions” affair in 1994 to the expenses debacle beginning in 2009, whether our Parliamentary representatives are taking legitimate steps to prepare for their future or feathering their own nests at the expense of democracy, reveals so much about the integrity of those we elect.
Wilde’s play still speaks to these important questions, asking not only about the financial legitimacy of those in the House of Commons, but also about the dangerous extent to which we idolise, and therefore sanitise, our public figures only to be disappointed when they are revealed to be all too human. And while building people up only to tear them down ranks high among favourite British past-times, as An Ideal Husband reveals, this can only happen when we put someone on a pedestal, bringing with it the corrective problem of subsequently setting them down too low, as Lord Goring aptly reminds Lady Chiltern of the punishment she inflicts on her once perfect spouse.
With such sharp relevance to political life in twenty-first century Britain, it seems a shame then that Classic Spring’s latest production, directed by Jonathan Church, though beautifully realised and worthy of many of its 4-star reviews, should muzzle its bite in a season that has, so far, failed to break the mould. Wilde is a wonderful playwright and a huge audience favourite – whether amateur or professional, there is almost certainly a production somewhere at all times, in fact there’s probably a by-law insisting upon it.
There is no danger of Wilde being forgotten, or his plays falling out of fashion, they remain as much a staple of the theatrical landscape as Shakespeare, so why then stage a dedicated London season without anything new to say? It is a money-spinner certainly, undoubtedly charming, witty and fun to play for the actors and directors, as well as a delight to watch, but audiences have seen it all a hundred times before, the approach taken in Dominic Dromgoole’s season to date has hardly set the canon on fire.
The three productions have all been very enjoyable with some great performances and high production values that have envisioned a series of charming room sets evoking comfortable wealth filled with beautifully dressed aristocrats. Eve Best as the titular Woman of No Importance along with a marvellous comic turn from Anne Reid in the same production were charming. Jennifer Saunders took no comedy prisoners to become the joyous highlight of a rather romantic take on Lady Windermere’s Fan. Here too, An Ideal Husband has a lovely gold and white set designed by Simon Higlett, whose costumes are a marvellous nod to the power of the female characters and the modish splendour of Lord Goring. But these wrappings reinforce the idea of Wilde’s play as a museum piece, which is far from the case. The class structure may be less pronounced, but Wilde’s view of humanity, and delight in mocking the pompous, vain, ambitious and scheming characteristics of society, are as prescient as ever. If any of Wilde’s plays were crying out for a modern spin particularly in a reverentially dedicated season, then An Ideal Husband certainly is. Enjoyable though it is, the overriding impression of this version at the Vaudeville Theatre is that Dromgoole et al have missed a trick.
And it’s a trick that would also have solved the other big issue that affects this production – it’s determination to depart from Oliver Parker’s wonderful 1999 film that set a high bar for subsequent interpretations. In some of the performances, it is clear that different decisions have been made in order to separate from the movie, but this only serves to weaken the personality of particular characters causing an imbalance in the play. A modern setting could have alleviated some of these issues, opening up the possibility of even stronger female characterisation than offered here, and tapping into a renewed devotion to political theatre that has been such a feature of West End productions in the last 12 months.
Sally Bretton’s Gertrude, for example, has become simpering and even shrill, barely suggesting the strength of character that should ultimately make her as much a match for the plotting Mrs Cheveley, as it does for her eminent husband. Where the text implies a passion for female liberation and, crucially, a true partner in a marriage of equals, Bretton’s Gertrude is a wallflower who relies solely on men to fix her problems. As a consequence, her scenes with Nathaniel Parker’s Sir Robert Chiltern have a whining quality rather than the logic of a devoted but sensible wife forced to recast her image of both her husband and herself.
Likewise, Francis Barber’s Mrs Cheveley borders occasionally on pantomime villain relishing the political hold she has over men, and Sir Robert in particular, but without fully convincing us of the sexual and emotional hold that she is fully capable of deploying to achieve her end. The supposed pre-relationship with Freddie Fox’s Lord Goring is a bit of a stretch given the age difference and while as a young man he may have “enjoyed” her company, it’s hard to believe the pair were truly in love enough to have considered marriage.
Where this production excels is in its approach to the comedy of Wilde’s dandyish characters and here the much-lauded appearance of father and son Edward and Freddie Fox is the backbone of this production. There is huge enjoyment to be had in the waspish bantering of the Gorings who find each other’s company irritating and unfathomable, entirely on different tracks but yoked together in a wonderfully bitter relationship that they cannot, and potentially would not, do without.
As Lord Goring, Freddie Fox builds well on his comic career to date, but his approach feels fresh, even modern in such a traditional take on the play. He has a feel for the rhythm of Wilde’s language, allowing him to make the lines seem like everday speech, natural conversation rather than a series of witty remarks strung together which is too often a failing of such stagings. Fox captures the arrogance and immense self-obsession that marks Goring’s character while still also suggesting a true generosity of heart that explains his desire to help his friends and ultimately himself to a more complex emotional life. It is a fine and vital performance that brings the various elements of the plot together with incredible skill.
Fox senior has considerably less stage time but enjoys every moment as the obstreperous Earl of Caversham, berating his wayward son and landing every insult with superb control. Nathanial Parker brings a nice sense of dignity to the set-upon Sir Robert Chiltern, hinting at the unrepentent conceit of a man who has scrambled his way to power by whatever means necessary, mixed with the fear of losing the respect of the wife he adores. Parker conveys Chiltern’s confliction, and despite becoming the face of honour and respectability, you still feel that he isn’t that ashamed of his murky past.
As we all now know, politics is (and always has been) a dirty business, and Chiltern represents a realistic portrait of how real power is founded, often not through essential decency, morality and achievement alone, but from dubious opportunity, whatever you make of it afterwards. It is something that Wilde clearly recognises in An Ideal Husband, that worth and duty can emerge from a less than auspicious start, that goodness is far more complex than idolisation imagines.
The modernity of these ideas is so striking that, in an otherwise charming and chic production, it can only be a shame that Classic Spring didn’t decide to take a risk with this interpretation. In a very traditional season and with tickets to sell, it is understandable, but the most remarkable theatre experiences come from innovation, from seeing beyond the surface of the text and every prior interpretation to find a new way to bring a story to the audience. In recent years several writers whose work has always been coddled, held captive by the era in which they wrote, have found new resonance, and if we can do that for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Ibsen, then its also time to let Wilde free.
An Ideal Husband is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 14 July. Tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1