It is a strange and fascinating inversion of life by art that, as Oscar Wilde’s own life unravelled towards its final, dark ruin, his dramas became ever lighter and funnier. An Ideal Husband is only capped by The Importance of Being Earnest for glittering wit, engaging humour, and a brilliantly twisting plot which holds our attention until the end, as scandals, secrets and the supreme challenge of moral honesty send our characters spinning through social chaos. But, despite its seeming lightness, Wilde’s terror of discovery, and simultaneous loathing of the double standard society forced him to adopt, pulses through this script like an uncontrollable twitch.
“I would to God I had been able to live the truth. That is the greatest thing in the world – to live the truth,” poignantly wishes Sir Robert Chiltern (Reuben Mackness), when, with his admired political career on the rise, he suddenly finds himself at risk of utter ruin at the hands of the scheming Mrs Cheveley (Louise Brighton), thanks to a youthful mistake. Dreading the disapproval of his saintly wife Gertrude (Jacqueline Du V’en), Chiltern tries to cover up with uncharacteristic moral cowardice, and his secret is soon out to those he loves. It is only by renewing their marriage through a new honesty and humility with each other that Robert and Gertrude can find happiness again, removing each other from “monstrous pedestals” to realise that “it is the imperfect, not the perfect, who have need of love.” Oscar would sadly never achieve such a compassionate, sincere reconciliation with his scornful, beautiful Bosie, soon to become his final downfall.
Clare Howard directs this traditional production for the Maddermarket with straightforward simplicity, and as a result the play generally rolls smoothly along: all the complexity comes from Wilde, the play speaking eloquently for itself. Howard’s cast of actors are all (in Maddermarket tradition) amateurs, with some more conspicuously gifted than others, but the whole company is confident, calm and clear on stage, maintaining pace well. Set design by Lucinda Bray includes large, translucent panels bearing Art Nouveau designs, creating a pretty opening scene as silhouetted partygoers gossip and laugh in the distance, and cleverly lending themselves to coloured backlighting to suggest wallpaper elsewhere. Period furniture produces the requisite drawing rooms and libraries, though scene changes are painfully slow. Costumes, Victorian in intention, can often be overblown in practice, particularly for the women, with shiny modern fabrics (and modern makeup) not quite fitting the tone of the piece; but we get the gist.
The highlight of the evening is Steven Scase’s near-perfect Viscount Goring, a part Scase seems born to play, delivering Goring’s scintillating one-liners with insouciant flair, but also bringing a tantalising edge of tenderness and vulnerability to the part of the clever young man-about-town giving the appearance of infinite leisure while secretly trying to save his friends, and win his love (a spry, engaging Verity Roat as Mabel Chiltern). Alexandra Evans’ fine, natural performance as Lady Markby is a joy throughout. Louise Brighton makes a nicely brittle, effervescent Mrs Cheveley, a brash harpy with callous ambition where a heart should be. Mackness’ stolid but steadily sweetening Chiltern is remarkably effective as tension builds, while his angelic wife (Du V’en) is best in her longer speeches. Bob Arnett charms in a smaller role as Goring’s long-suffering father, the Earl of Caversham. But ultimately, this is Goring’s triumph – and Scase’s night.
Reviewed at The Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich on 20 October 2017
- Until 28 October 2017. Box office: 01603 620 917