Oscar Wilde is easily one of the most revered playwrights of the 19th Century, if not the most admired, thanks in no small part to his sparkling dialogue and an unparalleled wit that make his stories simply timeless. So when the MTC announced An Ideal Husband as part of their 2018 season and filled it with a cast of much loved Australian actors, the expectations were high. Delightfully, this production is as gleaming and witty and Wilde’s brilliant script demands.
First staged in 1895, the story of An Ideal Husband is contemporary to the time it was written. A respected member of parliament, who along with his wife is one half of an admired couple in London society, Sir Robert Chiltern (Simon Gleeson) finds his unscrupulous political beginnings come back to haunt him when a woman who’s aware of his dark secret comes sweeping into their social set. Mrs Cheveley (Christie Whelan Browne) went to school with Sir Robert’s wife Gertrude (Zindzi Okenyo) and seizes the opportunity to jeopardise her old rival’s marriage while blackmailing him into parliamentary support of her sham Argentinian canal building scheme.
Wilde’s deliciously twisting plot makes quite an examination of the British class system and its obsession with reputation. Once a man’s standing (and therefore the standing of his wife) is sullied, their lives are potentially ruined, with the upper class never forgiving or forgetting such behaviour. As the play’s title suggests, Lady Chiltern has idealistic views of her husband, while Mrs Cheveley observes the ‘modern mania for morality’ as a chance to send him sprawling like ninepins. Helping to stand in her way is Sir Robert’s good friend Lord Goring (Brent Hill) an unmarried society layabout with eyes for Robert’s sister, the hard-to-get Miss Mabel Chiltern (Michelle Lim Davidson).
It’s also of particular interest that this play goes to some lengths observing a woman’s position in society at the turn of the 20th Century. Considering where we are today with modern feminism and the #metoo movement the script is laden with additional meaning. Thanks perhaps in part to Wilde’s illicit homosexuality, which ultimately brought reputational ruination upon him, his observations on both sides of feminism and sexism are quite even-handed for the time. For every Lady Markby (Gina Riley) quote of distaste that modern women “understand everything, I’m told”, you have the likes of Lord Caversham (William McInnes) noting that common sense “is the privilege of our sex” before realising that Mabel has a “good deal of common sense” for favouring a ‘real’ rather than ‘ideal’ marriage.
Director Dean Bryant has skilfully ensured all these engaging themes are clear in this charming and somewhat restrained production. The only aspects that seem unfettered are that of movement, with characters flitting around the stage almost constantly, and the embrace of physical comedy, ramping up the farce in Lord Goring’s drawing room scene. Bryant has worked out the balance well.
Costumes by Dale Ferguson (who also designed the set) are apparently inspired by the paintings of 19th Century American portraitist John Singer Sargent, an artist renowned for painting society friends, and the outfits are suitably spectacular. Those who attend theatre of this ilk to see beautiful costumes will not be disappointed. Ferguson has chosen a palette of neutral and earth tones – browns, beiges, straw and rust – that in combination with his set’s gold and chocolate colours has created a clear point of view. It’s not as opulent and richly hued as one might have hoped, nor even as that of many of Singer Sargent’s oil paintings, but both men’s and women’s costumes are magnificent nonetheless.
Matt Scott’s lighting design is descriptive of the low gaslight of the era, while Mathew Frank’s compositions and sound design are suitably reserved and unobtrusive.
As one would expect, the experience of Gina Riley and William McInnes shines through in their performances of the two elder statesmen roles and they lead the cast admirably. Riley clearly relishes each of Mrs Markby’s delicious, passive-aggressive one-liners, while McInnes is full of wonderful bluster, delighting the audience with his distaste for draughts.
Of their younger cohorts, Brent Hill and Christie Whelan Browne comport themselves most admirably. Hill is far from being a natural a dandy as Lord Goring is, but he demonstrates utter self-possession that makes his confidence entirely beguiling. Adding much to the already delightful dialogue, with a look here or a splayed foot there, Hill enriches the script with further comedy. Whelan Browne walks the tightrope of playing the despicable Mrs Cheveley while still imbuing her with likable traits. Her scheming charms us and while we don’t want her to win, it’s still enchanting to see her weave a wicked web.
Simon Gleeson ably imparts Lord Chiltern with classic Victorian era distinction while allowing the man’s modern fallibilities to come to fore without making him look limp. Zindzi Okenyo has the difficult task of demonstrating Lady Chiltern’s high expectations of her husband, which considering present day attitudes can cause an audience to laugh for the wrong reasons, a situation which she has ably avoided but it seems the conflict may have weighed heavily on her. Michelle Lim Davidson is charmingly coquettish as the highly eligible Mabel.
Any production of An Ideal Husband is generally worth a visit, this production with its generous staging and performances makes it an even more worthwhile winter’s night out.
Images: Jeff Busby