A neat, well-structured play which ties up its loose ends, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is a study of human frailty against the pressures of Victorian society.
There is a sense, watching this play, that it was something of a personal plea from Wilde to go easy on people who are less than perfect. A story of a prominent man whose past catches up with him, An Ideal Husband suggests that nobody is whiter than white and everybody deserves a second chance.
In the Chiltern household there is much to live up to. The house itself sets the highest of standards. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s glorious set presents an impossibly grand mansion with walls of tarnished gold and a chandelier hanging over the guests who walk down the sweeping staircase. They have been invited by Sir Robert Chiltern, a foreign affairs minister, and his wife, Lady Chiltern, whose life is lived on the highest of moral platforms. That is, until the devious Mrs Cheveley brings blackmail and dishonour to the dinner party.
Lindsay Posner’s production is full of solid performances. Alexander Hanson is convincing as the flawed MP – “truth is a complex thing,” he says, ever the politician – who feels his past sin was a momentary weakness upon which his whole life and career should not be judged. However, Rachael Stirling’s Lady Chiltern, a beacon of morality, has put her husband on such a pedestal that any blemishes, however human, are unacceptable to her. At the other end of the scale is Samantha Bond’s Mrs Cheveley, who knows that all men – and women – are flawed and exactly how to exploit those imperfections.
But Wilde makes us sympathise most with Sir Robert’s best friend, Lord Goring (Elliot Cowan, in a well-judged, comic performance). A bachelor and self-confessed dandy, Goring is a man who well knows the difficulties of living up to society’s – and his father’s – pressures. Act Three finds him at home in his library – another beautiful set by Brimson Lewis – where Wilde’s play takes on a farcical bent. Breaking the fourth wall by talking to the audience, Goring deliberates how to deal with the entangled situation he finds himself in, while all around him ask for his advice. Despite his own flaws, Goring is a rounded, human character, and the eventual sensible voice of the piece.
Though a long play, Posner’s production does not drag, and there are animated supporting performances from Caroline Blakiston as the garrulous Mrs Markby and Max Digby as Lord Goring’s world-weary servant who, in the tradition of all good comedy butlers, can show disdain through the raising of an eyebrow or the tilting of the head.
After making his point that everyone is only human, it somehow seems an anti-climax that Wilde makes Goring adhere to convention. But at least all the characters have learnt that a few flaws make a person that bit more interesting.