What a delightful turn of phrase Oscar Wilde had. His wit and playfulness are there for all to see in the verbiage-dense An Ideal Husband. In case you’re not familiar, the play deals with blackmail and corruption in high society. And doesn’t this sterling 11-string cast do it justice!
They have loads of fun with it, as did a most appreciative audience that hung on each tasty tidbit. There are twists and turns in plot aplenty in the second act before all comes together.
A prominent member of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Chiltern (Simon Gleeson) and his wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Zindzi Okenyo) are having a dinner party. It’s the setting in which Mrs Laura Cheveley (Christie Whelan Browne) will strike. Having returned to London after several years in Vienna, Mrs Cheveley – who went to school with Lady Chiltern and detested her – bails up Sir Robert and threatens to expose him for the corrupt way he obtained his wealth and forged his career.
Mrs Cheveley promises to drop a bombshell unless he supports a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. He’s previously denounced the very same scheme. Seems Mrs Cheveley’s former lover induced Chiltern to sell him a Cabinet secret. That enabled the lover to buy shares in a company three days before the British government announced its purchase of that company. Mrs Cheveley has incontrovertible proof – a letter – to attest to Chiltern’s crime.
Shaken to his core and afraid of losing his wife, Sir Robert turns to his best friend, Lord Arthur Goring (Brent Hill) for support. Coincidently, Goring used to be engaged to Mrs Cheveley. But Goring’s own father, the Earl of Caversham (William McInnes), derides him as a layabout with no skills. Severe complications arise in the second act as the Caversham implores his 34-year-old son to settle down and marry while Sir Robert’s world threatens to implode.
Caversham doesn’t know that Goring has caught the eye of Sir Robert’s sister, Miss Mabel Chiltern (Michelle Lim Davidson). However, the pair have merely toyed with one another to that point.
I was particularly taken by Brent Hill who excelled in his role as the devoted friend caught in crossfire from all sides, while Christie Whelan Browne made the femme fatale her own. William McInnes was suitably pompous as Caversham, and Simon Gleeson layered his performance as Sir Robert, the man whose future is at stake. Josh Price, too, makes an impression as Lord Goring’s butler, Phipps, one of three personas he takes on.
The costuming is exquisite and sets a debonair tone for the evening. Period furniture is changed to reflect different scenes in various residences and rooms. Dale Ferguson is set and costume designer.
An Ideal Husband proved extremely popular from the moment it first hit the stage in 1895. Now Dean Bryant directs a first-class rendition of one of Wilde’s greatest works, which is a pleasure to witness. It’s playing at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 18 August 2018.
* I saw the first preview performance of the play.
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- Coral Browne (fortyfivedownstairs) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television