This has been, as I think I’ve mentioned, Richard Monette’s last season as Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. I’m sure he’ll eventually come back to direct shows (if his health permits), but I don’t imagine he’ll do so for a couple of years, both in order to give the new team the room to do their own thing and to give himself a much-needed rest. For his swan-song he directed two shows. The first, A Comedy of Errors, which I reviewed here, was his self-indulgent fig to the critics. Unless he planned on casting a penguin as Phipps, the approach he took in Comedy would not do for his other effort, An Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde. And so I was interested to see what that approach would be. And the answer turns out to be: he took the thing seriously.
Taking Wilde seriously, of course, is the only way to make him funny. If you play the lines for laughs, they fall flat; if you make them seem like they are really coming out of these characters’ mouths, and what that must mean about the characters, then they are not only amusing but sometimes even powerful.
An Ideal Husband is a very serious work that tries very hard to hide that fact. The subject is sin, repentance and forgiveness. The hero, Sir Robert Chiltern, is a man of enormous public rectitude, but no sooner do we learn that about him, and that his wife is similarly above reproach, than we learn that he has a sordid past: he once sold a cabinet secret for money, and this sale was the basis of his fortune. Will he give in to blackmail rather than reveal the secret? Will his frigidly virtuous wife still love him once he’s been knocked off his pedestal? And what is the proper repentance for such a crime? Wilde’s view appears to be: be scrupulously honest with your wife, but don’t feel you need to be scrupulously honest with the public. That is probably closer to good advice than we would like to admit, which is precisely why I say this is a very serious work, because that is certainly not the sort of good advice that you could safely articulate as a rule of public order.
In any event, this still is a comedy, and we know that because, apart from Chiltern and his wife, we have another pair: Lord Goring, Robert Chiltern’s best friend, and Mabel, Robert’s sister. The two of them spend the entire play dancing around each other, flirting shamelessly. Of course they are going to marry at the end, but first we have to have a half-dozen scenes of Lord Goring failing to propose and Mabel pretending that if he did she wouldn’t accept. While this dance is going on, Lord Goring, whom everyone supposes to be the most trivial person imaginable, manages to solve Robert’s blackmail problem and generally restore the social order to what it ought to be.
The play has its weak points, primarily in the person of the blackmailer, Mrs. Cheveley, who is given a number of lines so melodramatic that I don’t know how they could be played. Dixie Seattle plays to the melodrama rather than trying to blunt it, and I don’t think this was an especially successful choice, though I’m not sure what advice I would give her about how to do better. And it is difficult, ultimately, to find the ending very satisfying. Yes, Robert Chiltern is a man of great talent – but he’s also a man who showed incredibly bad judgement, and committed a crime; and it isn’t obvious even at the end of the play that he has really a truly repented, so that the argument that he needn’t make a clean breast publicly strikes me as highly suspect.
But when it works, it works extremely well, and this production works whenever David Snelgrove, playing Lord Goring, or Sara Topham, playing Mabel Chiltern, are on stage. Snelgrove is an actor I’ve had mixed feelings about; I’ve seen him do very strong work, and I’ve seen him fail rather badly. He excels here, because he succeeds in conveying that Lord Goring is putting on an act, nearly all the time. Topham, meanwhile, I have long enjoyed, and she also is fully in her element here playing the one true innocent. The other stand-out performance is by Bruce Dow in the small role of Phipps, Lord Goring’s valet; he is vastly more entertaining than a penguin would have been. And Chick Reid, as Lady Markby, provides much-needed comic relief in her scenes, which are otherwise dominated by the gloomy Chiltern couple and the snarling and scheming Mrs. Cheveley.
Brigit Wilson does a creditable job as Lady Chiltern, but she is undermined by Tom McAmus as her husband, Robert; he is so understated and so downbeat that she gets dragged down along with him. It is easy to see their rectitude, harder to see their spirit, the energy they must bring to public life for them to be as effective as everyone says they are. They are supposed to have a high opinion of themselves and each other, but they are not supposed to be charmless, and in this production they come rather close to being so.
The most surprising thing about the production was the poor production values, normally a given strength at Stratford. Most of the ladies look quite as dowdy as they are quipped to be early on; if that was a deliberate choice on Monette’s part, I don’t think it is a wise one. And the bare stage does not serve the production especially well; when everyone is supposed to be dressed to the nines and as rich as Croesus, it’s weird to see them stomping about on bare, scuffed floors with only a few sticks of furniture to suggest opulence. Again, this may have been a deliberate choice, but if so it was an odd one.
This is not my favorite Wilde, and it is not a perfect production, but it was a good one, one that showed off some strong acting and that did show at least that Richard Monette still remembers how to take a production seriously.