Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a tale of morality, blackmail and political corruption, arrives at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand for a winter residency, featuring the husband and wife team of Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond alongside the luminary talents of Elliot Cowan and Rachael Stirling in the lead roles.
On the surface, Wilde’s play is the saga of a rising political star, Sir Robert Chiltern, whose career is threatened by the villainous Mrs Cleveley who is possession of the knowledge of the past indiscretion which led to him securing a small fortune and the undying respect of his virtuous wife. Mrs Cleveley wants his support on a new scheme and is willing to blackmail him to get her way, but when his wife Gertrude finds out the truth, her perfect ‘ideal husband’ is besmirched, she declares she can no longer love him and it is left to their dear friend Lord Arthur Goring. But on closer examination, it is becomes a passionate plea for true love to be willing to forgive everything, something given extra poignancy when one considers that Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas would become public and wreck his life within the very year this play was first produced.
In asking the audience to sympathise so heavily with a politician, guilty of corruption and unrepentant about it, there’s a curious sense of timing in this revival but Wilde’s customary witticisms and sharp observations carry us with him. And ultimately, it is hard to rebuff his rejection of the pursuit of perfection in lieu of a more worldly understanding of the way things work and compromising a bit. It really is a very funny play at times as one might expect, but more so than ever, one does come away wishing that the straight characters were as much fun as the more rakish ones.
Consequently, the evening belongs to Samantha Bond and Elliot Cowan. As the devious Mrs Cheveley, she wields a deadly rapier intent wrapped in a velvet veneer of Victorian elegance with a highly amoral but dazzling turn, reminding us too of the woman behind the villain whose face crumples when ultimately rejected again by Goring. And Cowan is delightful as the would-be rake Arthur Goring whose wisecracking and debonair charms cannot disguise the depths of his relationship with the Chilterns and the honourable lengths he will go to to defend his friends using his practicality and strong humanity. Their scenes together crackle with electricity and
Rachael Stirling impressed me with a nicely anguished performance of the rigidly certain Gertrude, bringing some much-needed empathy to an full of nuances and proving that she really is a superb reactive actress: her facial expressions are always a joy to watch, particularly so in the final act as her husband grills Goring and edges closer to the truth. Against these three though, Alexander Hanson’s Lord Chiltern was a bit disappointing, a wan portrayal which was underpowered with little depth suggested so that when his explosive shouty angst finally emerged, it felt very much out of place. Of the more minor players, standout Charles Kay is the most fun as the Earl of Caversham with his constant hectoring of his son Goring to get married and I enjoyed Fiona Button’s gauchely charming Mabel.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design is gorgeously opulent: based around an octagonal stage, the Chilterns’ residence is all burnished gold panels with a range of nice add-ons, Goring’s is a beautiful deep turquoise and so the accompanying minimum of furnishings works well in keeping the space uncluttered. And the costumes match up to the design with some absolutely stunning frockage, my favourites were Bond’s opening peacock blue gown and Stirling’s tweedy tailored number but not letting the side down for the men is Cowan’s utterly eye-catching maroon suit in the final act.
It feels ungentlemanly to say it, but the choice to cast Bond and Stirling as contemporaries is a difficult one at best. Bond is beautifully made up and Stirling is kept relatively dowdy but there is no disguising the 16 year age gap between them and when Mrs Clevely talks of remembering Lady Chiltern from school, one can hear the barely suppressed ‘really?!’ from the audience. And given that this was a preview, I was inclined to forgive the stiltedness with which much of the first act proceeded but as the final one, there’s only a wee while in order to rectify it and ensure every last actor is on top of their lines.
Ultimately though, I really enjoyed this production of An Ideal Husband. It is just gorgeous to look at, rewarding to listen to and laugh with and in Cowan and Bond, there’s two hugely enjoyable performances.