In Wilde’s 1895 satire, Mrs Cheveley (Bond) attempts to ruin the career of politician Robert Chiltern (Alexander Hanson) by producing incriminating evidence about his past. However, she hasn't reckoned on the faithfulness and good memory of his devoted wife (played by Rachael Stirling), nor the assistance of his philandering friend Lord Goring (Elliot Cowan).
The satire has not been seen in the West End for over ten years following numerous productions of Peter Hall’s long-running revival which ran in a number of theatres for more than six years from 1992. Having opened last night (10 November 2010, previews from 2 November) the show is currently taking bookings until 19 February 2010.
Did this new revival of the classic 1895 comedy give critics a Wilde night?
"Lindsay Posner’s superb revival at the Vaudeville is a timely reminder of its sharp definition of troubles in private and political life ... Posner’s production reasserts the play’s Ibsenite classicism coated in a polished veneer ... Even at the time of its premiere, this must have sounded both satirical and prophetic, and the intervening century has done nothing to blunt the play’s cutting edge in its discussion of power, morals and marriage. Hanson and Bond are well matched by Rachael Stirling as Lady Chiltern and Elliot Cowan as Lord Goring in their sinuous arguments and witty debate. The setting in Grosvenor Square is beautifully designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis ... For once, you can honestly say that the West End has a classical production that would grace the stage of the National. Admirers of Downton Abbey on television will be thunderstruck by the quality of the script, the elegance of phrase and the architecture of thought and speech ... A wonderful evening."
"The play is unmistakably an attack on late-Victorian values ... Wilde's plot may be full of awkward contrivances but Posner's production does full justice to its genuine substance. Alexander Hanson brings out the posturing element in Chiltern's public virtue and his corresponding rage ... Rachael Stirling is equally powerful as the wife who realises she has worshipped a false idol ... Samantha Bond as the blackmailing Mrs Cheveley also looks handsome as hell in her silken gowns ... What you might call the Ibsenite side of Wilde's play, which involves exposing a marital life-lie, comes across excellently ... Elliot Cowan captures well the underlying sanity and goodness of Viscount Goring ... Heretical as it may be to say so, some of Wilde's comic riffs even come to seem a bit tiresome. There's a long passage in the second act when an elderly aristo, although well played by Caroline Blakiston, fires off her views about politics and society in a way that simply brings the play grinding to a halt ... At the climax as everything is resolved, one is reminded of the paradoxical truth of Borges's remark that 'the fundamental flavour of Wilde's work is happiness'."
"This isn’t the most popular of Wilde’s plays, nor the slickest: elegant cynicism and farcical devices about wrong women behind doors, secret springs on bracelets and misunderstood letters sit uneasily next to rants about political ethics, love, idealism and forgiveness ... As so often with Wilde, one longs for an occasional dolt to vary the rhythm. Yet Lindsay Posner’s production works, even at three hours ... Disregarding odd first-night stumbles, the cast skip through the wordy epigrams, though none with quite as glorious relish as Caroline Blakiston, whose ten-minute ramble as Lady Markby won a mid-scene round of applause. Max Digby as Phipps the manservant displays an understated flounce which will carry him far. Samantha Bond as Mrs Chieveley makes a splendid adventuress ... Like all the women, she keeps the wardrobe department on its toes ... Yet some things are perennial: money, power, the dread of exposure in the press. 'Think,' sneers Mrs Chieveley to her victim, 'of their loathsome joy! Think of the hypocrite with his greasy smile, penning his leading articles...'”
The Daily Mail
"Director Lindsay Posner steers a perilous path between costume drama and pastiche but the second half is mad and masterly. Samantha Bond... is terrific as villainous Mrs Cheveley. And the night is made by a performance of rising frenzy from Elliot Cowan ... Elaborate sets match the hoity-toity characterisation ... Miss Bond’s arrival in 'far too much rouge and not quite enough clothes', injects pace ... Is Mrs Cheveley a spy? No, we are told. 'Spies are over. The newspapers do their work instead'. Mr Hanson plays things stodgy. He’s a great sucker of his front teeth, Comrade Hanson. Did much of it when he sang von Trapp in the Sound of Music ... As the dilemmas play out, Mr Cowan’s character, Lord Goring, acquires prominence. Mr Cowan springs about on his toes and as the plot reaches a vortex his shoulders become vulture-like in their tension ... Wilde is pretty horrible to women. They hector, gossip, bleat, betray. But is there something in his theory that they expect too much from husbands? Once they demanded honour. Today they want 'new men'. Lady Chiltern lives on, you know."
The Daily Telegraph
"Beyond the jokes, the plot twists and the blackmailing scarlet woman, there is little doubt that Wilde put a lot of himself and his own experience into this play ... When he wrote it, Wilde was already being blackmailed by rent boys ... Before the play's run was over, Wilde had been arrested and Reading Gaol awaited him ... Lindsay Posner's production captures the piece's mixture of sudden passages of emotional truth. Stephen Brimson Lewis' opulent design of Chilton's Grosvenor Square home leaves little doubt where at least some of the politician's ill-gotten money has gone. Alexander Hanson powerfully captures the politician's rising panic, and there are strong performances from Rachael Stirling as his prig of a wife and from Elliot Cowan. But the real star turn comes from Samantha Bond as the blackmailing Mrs Cheveley ... She brings a delicious vivacity and wit to the role, delivering her lines in a voice that is a mixture of honey and ground glass. Her squirming victim is played by Hanson, Bond's real life husband, adding a piquant twist to this richly entertaining evening."