An Ideal Husband
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh
Chichester Festival Theatre
Saturday 29th November 2014. 14.30
A: The only thing worse than not being quoted, is saying nothing that is quotable.
B: Indeed, dear Oscar. But when a man tires of being quoted, surely he is tired of life.
A: Although when someone says they are tired of life, they mean that people have tired of listening to them.
B: Anyone would think to hear such wit, that Oscar had been here to …’
We’ll stop the crude pastiche there. The dizzying succession of carefully-weighted Wildean epigrams hovers over any production of his plays, and their succession and frequency is a mountain any director has to get over. The Ideal Husband is a masterpiece, but the party scene with which it starts is a parade of characters, some of them of no subsequent importance, exchanging witty and snobby aphorisms. It slows the start, and all the reviews mention the slow start, but I suspect it’s intrinsic in the play, at least as we take Wilde today.
Robert Bathurst as Sir Robert Chilton (Act 1 with flowers)
I can see why some think it greater than The Importance of Being Earnest in that it combines sublime comedy with a serious theme and impending tragedy (if loss of public face is a tragedy) and you get romance thrown in. The story is that Sir Robert Chiltern is an esteemed and respectable politician, the Under-Secretary-of-State for Foreign Affairs according to the original cast list. His wife sees him as a model of rectitude. Mrs Chevely, whom she knows from schooldays as a dishonest person, turns up at their party. She has been brought along by the gossipy stately elderly woman, Lady Markby. Mrs Chevely has a letter proving that Sir Robert was involved in insider trading in Suez canal shares, and had leaked secret government information to an investor in return for a kickback of £110,000. In modern terms he became an instant multi-millionaire. This dirty deed is the foundation of all his success. Mrs Chevely tries to blackmail Sir Robert into making a speech supporting a dodgy Argentine canal scheme. But since his youthful indiscretion,. Sir Robert has led a model life. what is he to do? The central character is Chiltern’s friend, Lord Goring, a character devoted to the trivial, who turns out to be the true hero and saves the day.
Two parallels come immediately to mind. One wonders whether they thought at all of taking it from its 1895 time frame and plunging it into the world of investment banking … but has a modern dress Wilde ever been done? It would seem to lose too much and anyway the parallels are clear. The other is that this was the play running at the start of Oscar Wilde’s trials, and that it was written with a personal secret that he had to hide from his devoted wife. It’s laden with autobiographical angst, and while Lord Goring is the ostensibly Wilde figure, Sir Robert with his guilty secret is a further identification.
On comedy, Wilde does the classic farce scene where a character concealed in another room is thought by the person trying to conceal them that is is someone else. In this case, Lord Goring thinks Sir Robert’s wife is hiding in the other room, while in fact it is Mrs Chevely.
The Chichester production looks superb. The first set is somewhat borrowed from bits of their production of Amadeus with black marble pillars, and huge banks of flowers. Then we have the study, then Lord Goring’s sumptuous crimson-draped bachelor pad in the second half. If the set looks good, the costumes are even better. The dresses all tell a story. Lady Markby’s beribboned costume betrays her age, as do Lord Caversham’s breeches and stockings. Lady Chiltern, the moral perfect wife, has a tie after attending a meeting of the Women’s Liberal Association. Lady Chevely’s exotic black and yellow gown in part two must be dress design of the year. Lord Goring’s shoes are a character on their own.
Edward Fox as The Earl of Caversham
The cast acts the roles of aristocrats, and is composed of acting aristocracy. The two strong cameo roles are Lady Markby (Patricia Routledge) and Lord Goring’s senior politician father, the Earl of Caversham (Edward Fox). They steal the show, both exiting after major scenes to well-deserved spontaneous applause. Routledge at 85, and Fox at 77 are skilled and knowing performers. With both there was a point where you thought they had understandably forgotten a line, only to realize it was a deliberate device to accentuate the next line. Edward Fox looks so much like a royal (having played so many of them) that we instantly accept his seniority and power. Patricia Routledge knows when to gently slip in a piece of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) intonation.
The principle men are Robert Bathurst as Sir Robert Chiltern, and Jamie Glover as Lord Goring. Jamie Glover directed the Chichester Miss Julie / The Black Comedy earlier this season. Wilde liked his older serious man / younger trivial man pairings. These two would be wonderful as Jack Worthing and Algernon Montcrieff. I hope they do it someday. Robert Bathurst has to go from pompous to panicked to shamed to upright again, and does so perfectly. Jamie Glover is perfect Wilde casting. His performance ranks as one of the best of 2014 for both of us. We watched fascinated at his seated interaction of walking cane, and beautiful shoe through one scene. Was every action considered? We thought so!
Lady Chiltern (Laura Rogers) and Lady Markby (Patricia Routledge)
Laura Rogers has that perfect moralizing wife role which many would dread playing, but she is outstandingly good at it. Amy Morgan as Sir Robert’s little sister Mabel (in love with Lord Goring) is the epitome of Wilde’s younger heroines … a perfect Cecily, if you like. The three reviews I read are all somewhat negative about Jemma Redgrave’s Lady Chevely, and we hadn’t read them before, but had the same reaction. She suffers most from the Listen. I Am Delivering Memorable Witty Lines And That Was One Just Now syndrome, and didn’t quite get the seductive villainess for us. It needed to be sexier and more charismatic … this was a woman who had run things (and men) her way for years. Interestingly, Hattie Ladbury had the minor role of Mrs Marchmont, and it struck me, having seen her twice recently, that I’d have cast her as Lady Chevely. It’s a natural part for her.
Do I exaggerate the parade of witty lines? An actual interchange between Lord Caversham (Edward Fox) and his son (Jamie Glover).
Lord Caversham: Well sir, I suppose I have a right to sneeze when I choose.
Lord Goring: Quite so, father, I was merely expressing sympathy.
Lord Caversham: Oh, damn sympathy. There is a great deal too much of that sort of thing going on nowadays.
Lord Goring: I quite agree with you, father. If there was less sympathy in the world there would be less trouble in the world.
Lord Caversham: That is a paradox, sir. I hate paradoxes.
Lord Goring: So do I, father. Everybody one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious.
The thing is, handled by two masters of the acting profession, Edward Fox and Jamie Glover, that interchange worked perfectly, sounded natural and got the laughs. That is a towering achievement. Incidentally, Wilde did write out character names in full. The programme reproduces the original cast list in the 1895 programme. The characters are listed males first, females second. Not in order of importance. Not in order of appearance, but in the order of social rank, beginning with The Earl of Caversham KG.
Mabel Chiltern (Amy Morgan) and Lord Goring (Jamie Glover)
Chichester has the audience on three sides of its stage, and we were not far stage right (i.e, audience left) but a block in. So if centre stage at the back is 12 o’clock, and directly in front is 6 o’clock, we were about 8 o’clock. There was a whole block further to the side than our seats (65 and 66). Particularly in the first half, several dialogues were on a small settee placed directly in front of us, and most of the time we had one character with their back to us, and that character was masking the person they were talking to completely. It reminds us that Wilde was never designed for thrust stages, or here, semi circular stages. I was aware that when the seated dialogue moved to a small table and chairs on the opposite side, which was much less often, the opposite side to us, at 4 o’clock, would have had the same issue. Chichester usually works better for blocking than this, but I guess it has much less seated dialogue in most plays. A definite fault.
The Guardian and Telegraph each gave it three stars. The common complaint was it slightly missed on lightness of touch and pace, requisite for Wilde, especially early on. True, but An Ideal Husband also has weightier themes than the other comedies. Quentin Letts gave it a four in the Mail. I agree that it took time to take off, or perhaps to lose the automatic reaction to the wearisome parade of quips, but I’d say four easily. Five for costume and most of the actors.
Chichester has had a wonderful season, its first since rebuilding. Its plentiful loos are an example to every theatre in the country. It’s great to stroll out onto the grass parkland behind between acts. It’s right by a huge and cheap car park. The new coffee bars are first rate. The large and efficient Brasserie does an excellent pre-theatre meal. We had thought it slightly inferior to the Royal Shakespeare Rooftop Restaurant, but this week we had a bad meal at the Rooftop (highly unusual) and a brilliant one at Chichester. The programmes are £3 not the £4 elsewhere. Thinking back to the plays we saw, Amadeus, Miss Julie, The Black Comedy, Gypsy, Pitcairn and An Ideal Husband I’d also say they had the most consistent quality of the major seasons this year.