Although Oscar Wilde’s second great comedy, An Ideal Husband was “re-discovered” twice in the 1980s – in severely contrasted, but equally fine productions by Peter Hall and Philip Prowse – Lindsay Posner’s superb revival at the Vaudeville is a timely reminder of its sharp definition of troubles in private and political life.
Often dismissed as too long and too melodramatic, Posner’s production reasserts the play’s Ibsenite classicism coated in a polished veneer: Alexander Hanson’s Sir Robert Chiltern, a rising political star in the Foreign Office, is cornered by Samantha Bond’s blackmailing Mrs Cheveley for having sold a Cabinet secret to another government.
Mrs Cheveley is keen to promote her own commercial interests at the expense of Sir Robert’s integrity: “Scandals used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man – now they crush him. And yours is a very nasty scandal. You couldn’t survive it.”
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 as a gilded monument to wealth and privilege. 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.
The cast is strong all the way down, from Charles Kay’s dyspeptic grandee and Caroline Blakiston’s magnificent dowager (with one of Wilde’s greatest drawing room monologues) right through to Max Digby’s deliciously observed servant and Fiona Button’s pert society sibling. A wonderful evening.