A huge sovereign hangs down between the acts of Peter Hall's production, emblematising both horns of protagonist Sir Robert Chiltern's dilemma: the austere morality personified by Queen Victoria, and the gold for which the politician once sacrificed his principles. Chiltern's near-downfall through blackmail and misunderstanding form the narrative, filtered through Wilde's observations on gender-differences in emotional nature (Lady Chiltern, in determinedly idealising her husband, provokes a crisis as severe as that engineered by the malicious Mrs Cheveley) which may be charitably ignored today in favour of other resonances.
As Lady Chiltern, Hannah Gordon's sobbing collapse is an anomalous forced moment in a performance of steadfastness and integrity, contrasting both with the general epigrammatising and her own husband's behaviour (David Yelland lamed by the constipated air he gives Sir Robert); she must soon play Ibsen. Martin Shaw's Lord Goring (family friend and agent of ultimate salvation) is an odd animal, portrayed as Wilde himself with padding, Neronian curls and florid delivery – it's hard to tell whether Goring's passages of sincerity impress in themselves or simply by juxtaposition with the comical foppery, but one suspects it's a case of the director successfully (if only sporadically) toning down the actor's own notions.
This is a comedy, though; indeed, the third act – with its succession of entrances and exits, concealments and thefts – is as near as Wilde gets to farce. One can't help thinking, "How very different from the life of our own dear cabinet"; I admit to feeling such laughter somehow improper when every week brings a new government outrage, beside which Sir Robert Chiltern's insider trading appears positively trivial. But if (unlike me) you can distinguish fact from fiction and put your moral indignation on hold for three hours, An Ideal Husband makes a fine if inconsequential evening.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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