Say “Oscar Wilde” to a reasonably well-read person on the street and the first play they will probably think of is The Importance of Being Earnest. While it is a masterpiece of farce and social satire, I think it’s a shame it has overshadowed his other Society comedies.
They are Society comedies with a big “S” because they are set in the rarefied upper-class world which Wilde himself moved in and charmed at too many parties to count. But during the excellent production of An Ideal Husband at the Vaudeville Theatre I couldn’t help noticing parallels to modern politics and society.
The dirty secret that emerges in this play is one that even today would make waves if it emerged in the life of a successful politician like Sir Robert Chiltern (Alexander Hanson). Sir Robert has founded his fortune (and thus his political career) on insider trading based on his advance knowledge, as a minister’s secretary, of the British government’s purchase of shares in the Suez Canal. With his political career founded on his high moral tone and Lady Chiltern (Rachael Stirling) being an unbendingly principled woman, he is put into a horrible situation when the mysterious socialite Mrs Cheveley (Samantha Bond) threatens to reveal the evidence of his past crime.
To rub salt into the wound, Mrs Cheveley’s aim is to make herself and her accomplices a fortune from another canal scheme, which in reality is a stockmarket fraud. Ms Bond plays her part superbly: as she bullies Sir Robert to get him to praise the scheme in the Commons and so ensure its success (as a fraud, rather than a canal company) she mixes the urbane charm of a socialite with the iron will of a woman who knows she has the upper hand. Mr Hanson’s portrayal of a politician under enormous pressures thanks to the contradiction between his public face and his private history is believable and sympathetic, though sometimes he delivers his lines a bit too fast.
The dandy Lord Goring (Elliot Cowan) is the only person Sir Robert feels able to come to for help. Mr Cowan’s acting lets the audience glimpse the genuine sense of charity and loyal friendship that is cloaked by Goring’s deliberately frivolous manner. Wilde saw himself as a Lord Goring, looking in on a slightly mad world from a position of semi-detachment; indeed, the stage directions describing Goring at the beginning of Act 3 are very much a description of Wilde as he saw himself: “The first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.”
Of course the plot requires Goring to take sides, and he naturally comes to the aid of his friend Sir Robert; though not mincing his words in his criticism of Sir Robert’s sordid past he believes that he deserves a second chance. Mrs Cheveley relies on her knowledge that the British public of the time (and indeed of our time) is not as forgiving of the sins of its leaders. The confrontation of Goring and Mrs Cheveley in Act 3 is gripping and even the usually unruffled dandy loses his cool.
Lady Chiltern faces a painful education in morality when Mrs Cheveley tells her of her husband’s secret. She faces the same question as the audience, only much more cruelly: can she forgive someone she idolised as the ideal husband? Ms Stirling’s husky voice comes into its own as her character wrestles with her love for Sir Robert – which turns out to be more unconditional than she thought – and her abhorrence of immorality.
It is difficult to find a weak link in this cast. Fiona Button carries off the role of Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert’s delightfully ditzy sister and Lord Goring’s heartthrob, admirably. Goring’s father, the Earl of Caversham (Charles Kay) is appropriately crusty, and their relationship is well exploited for comedy. A special mention should go to Lady Markby (Caroline Blakiston), whose delivery was superb. Unsurprisingly Ms Blakiston has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and exploits that experience to the full.
Since the play is about the personal and political price of scandal it can hardly escape parallels to the furore over MPs’ expenses. When Sir Robert sorrowfully declares that “The God of this century is wealth” he could just as easily be talking of our own time. The parallels are not explicit: this production is a traditional production with sumptuous fin de siècle sets and costumes (though not entirely faithful to the text – a section where Goring is rather anti-feminist was cut). The excellent acting and the gripping story make it a thought-provoking and enjoyable experience for the audience; Wilde’s writing speaks to us over the intervening century.
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