Coming in nearly the same breath as Sarah Ferguson’s recent “error in judgement,” both the universality of theme and timeliness of presentation make the Shaw Festival’s second production of An Ideal Husband the perfect opener to its 49th season. Politicians of all stripes (and their few admirers and legions of critics) as well as lovers of caustic wit won’t want to miss the opportunity of savouring Oscar Wilde’s incredibly personal talent and style.
Judith Bowden’s broad-brush set provides a marvellous view of Grosvenor Square from the Chiltern’s house and the delightfully self-absorbed digs of the perpetually-lazy son of wealth-by-heredity who drives the action of Wilde's last play. The costumes are magnificently at one with those Victorian times—notably the bevy of bonnets and foppish gowns/coats which adorn the author’s onstage alter ego.
Despite the generous real estate of the Festival Theatre—threatening to rob Jackie Maxwell’s thoughtful investigation of power and mores of the upper class of its intimacy—this production does have many, memorable moments (once the lifeless opening-scene party has been laid to rest) thanks in no little part to Kevin Lamotte’s magical lighting skills (the late-inning tableau of the female combatants proved yet again how much more a single image can portray than hundreds of words).
The weak link in the overall design was the music. The string quartet and percussion combination paid so much homage to Kronos Quartet (cross-reference below) that the ear craved the real McCoy. The attempt to bridge classical forms and styles with present-day intrigues and machinations must look fine on the staves. However, a few measures of uncertain pitch and an ensemble (Madawaska String Quartet) that couldn’t find its collective sense of oneness or match the overall level of excellence emanating from the stage, produced a less than ideal soundscape.
Happily, the ever-capable troupe largely kept the tale of virtue-masked-as-idleness on an amusing and engaging track.
As Sir Robert Chiltern, Patrick Galligan’s descent into professional/personal calamity at the hands of an unscrupulous blackmailer was a performance to behold. Riveting was his Act-II-closing inner explosion, spitting out enough self-created venom to fill the Thames. Maya O’Connell was perfectly detestable as the excellent conniver, Laura Cleveley. (The ghost of transgressions past initially provides hope to all that those who lie and cheat their way into power will always have a day of reckoning—won’t they?)
Playing the dandy role of Viscount Goring to the nines, Steven Sutcliffe did everything asked of him and more. Yet, the queer card was so extremely evident (notably his gaily infused visage and declaration of unbounded love for “Mommy”) that his assignations with various women (and, finally, engagement to the ever-patient Mabel Chiltern—Marla McLean doing the honours) just didn’t rise above disbelief. A touch less lavender or, in the spirit of risk-taking, why not engage a delectable drag queen to meet his/her beloved “under the usual palm tree.”
Lorne Kennedy was, well, ideal as the increasingly frustrated Lord Caversham—resplendent both in his caustic disdain for Goring’s lack of achievement as in his dumbfounded shock when Sir Robert turns down a proffered cabinet post to atone for a long-past transgression (no worries: seems greed and ambition always trump conscience on both sides of the footlights—any nervous financial advisors in the crowd?).
Wendy Thatcher’s Lady Markby was a model of don’t-give-a-damn, pass-the-sherry dowager whose wise, if frequently addled utterances, lifted all of her scenes.
Catherine McGregor provided a charming simplicity in her portrayal of the near-hopelessly naive Lady Gertrude Chiltern, but needs a tad more range-of-delivery to fully drill down into the paradoxical situations she has been crafted to endure.
By journey's end, the notion that telling the whole truth is most certainly something to be studiously avoided, “Everyone turns out to be someone else” seems equally valid today (“I’m the Chinese Warren Buffett”) as when the gifted writer was tried then sentenced to jail by his blameless peers just for being himself. JWR