An Ideal Husband -- Theater Review

Oscar Wilde classic with surprisingly human depth to match the witticisms.

LONDON -- Written in 1895 when Oscar Wilde was being blackmailed for his then illegal homosexual activities, “An Ideal Husband” deals with a politician threatened with ruin over a youthful discretion and while it is a witty and well-structured play, more than anything it is a plea for forgiveness.

That is made very clear entertainingly in Lindsay Posner’s sumptuous new production at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, which features pitch-perfect acting to match the elegant furnishings and exquisite suits and dresses of the period.

Samantha Bond -- Miss Moneypenny in the Pierce Brosnan-James Bond films -- plays the wealthy, ultra sophisticated and supremely devious Mrs. Cheveley, who has in her possession a letter that would collapse the successful political career and rich world of Sir Robert Chiltern, played by Bond’s husband Alexander Hanson. She will destroy the letter if Chiltern makes a speech in favor of a canal project in South America that will make her even richer.

Chiltern is a senior foreign affairs politician with eyes on a cabinet post. His life with the almost too perfect Lady Chiltern (Rachael Stirling) in their exceedingly grand mansion in Grosvenor Square is at the centre of London society with lords, ladies and well-tailored scoundrels constantly in and out of their parlour.

One of these is Chiltern’s best friend, Lord Goring (Elliot Cowan) who is supported in luxury by his father, the Earl of Caversham (Charles Kay) and is therefore a dedicated layabout and womaniser.

It is Goring, of course, who becomes the hero of Wilde’s tale as he contrives to match wits with the unscrupulous Mrs. Cheveley and protect his friend’s career and marriage, and sets out to win the hand of Chiltern’s delectable sister Mabel (Fiona Button) and secure his inheritance.

In four acts over 140 minutes (plus a 20-minute interval), Wilde scatters inimitable and strikingly clever witticisms throughout what under Posner’s direction is a remarkably sturdy and handsome drama.

Wilde’s sure grasp of the machinations of both politics and society is matched with a depth of feeling that belies his reputation for cynical despatch. Hanson makes clear Chiltern’s ambition and reluctance to give up his wealth and prestige while Stirling is poised and immoveable as a woman who requires a husband of unblemished reputation.

When Mrs. Chevely – played with savage grace by Bond, using her poise and husky voice to seduce and toy with everyone around her – strives to wreak havoc on the Chilterns’ happy life, Hanson and Stirling make their confusion and fear appear genuine.

Often cast as a sexy beast, Cowan displays a sure comic touch as the would-be indolent bachelor whose simple humanity makes him the most honest and sincere character of all. It is his heartfelt appeal that everyone should learn to forgive that lies at the heart of the piece.

Constructed with a satisfying outcome, the play allows time for supporting players to take the spotlight, particularly Button as the demure but determined Mabel, Kay as the blustering Caversham, Max Digby as Goring’s patiently droll manservant Phipps, and Caroline Blakiston, as a seen-it-all society matron.

Venue: Vaudeville Theatre, London (Through Feb. 19)
Cast: Samantha Bond, Elliot Cowan, Alexander Hanson, Rachael Stirling
Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Director: Lindsay Posner
Set designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Music: Matthew Scott