Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Not Very Satisfactory: An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre

Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is one of my favourite plays - the aristos are ridiculed in the best English literary tradition. But watching An Ideal Husband made me sympathise with Lady Bracknell's horror of babies in handbags - not because it smacks of 'the worst excesses of the French Revolution', but because it glosses political corruption, as 'youthful folly'.

London in 1891: Sir Robert Chiltern MP, who made a fortune selling privileged information when he was young, is being blackmailed by Mrs Cheveley, a woman in possession of a letter that proves his guilt. If his high-minded wife finds out she'll divorce him and he'll lose his Under-secretary post.

Set in the opulent gold-walled, marble-floored 'Octagon Room' in Sir Robert's house in Grosvenor Street and the stylish Curzon Street home of his dandyfied pal Viscount Goring, the design by Stephen Bromson Lewis is top-notch. The costumes are the best I've ever seen.

The pace is slow in the first half, where supper party guests lounge about in elegant clothes and complain of boredom, in slowly-delivered aphorisms: 'Questions are never indiscreet, but answers often are', 'One should always play fairly when one has the winning hand' and 'To love oneself is the start of a lifelong romance'

The second half is more invigorating, with unexpected visitors, mysterious letters and concealed eavesdroppers. The tainted Lord should get his come-uppance, but alas it's a case of art mirroring life. Oscar Wilde forgets his own definition of fiction, which demands that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

The acting is good, especially by Caroline Blakiston as waspish dowager Lady Markby who might be Lady Bracknell's sharper-elbowed sister, and Samantha Bond as the beautiful worldly blackmailer who wants wants to be restored to fashionable society. Elliot Cowan as Goring had the best lines as the author's mouthpiece, as well as the most flamboyant suit.

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