In this most unusual opening week at the Stratford Festival, patrons have been sent home emptyhanded (bomb threat on Monday), delighted with extraordinary movement (The Music Man) and plunged into the depths of despair (Long Day’s Journey into Night)—cross-references below.
How absolutely brilliant, then, that Oscar Wilde’s pillory of love, marriage, duty and honesty appeared just in time to cleanse the human palette, reminding one and all that (a) it is always beneficial to laugh (especially at ourselves) (b) human foibles will never be exterminated so long as choices—fuelled by all manner of unexpected circumstances—have to be made in the twinkling of an I.
Key to it all is Wilde’s uncanny understanding of human nature even as the Queen of Lavender was persecuted and jailed—just months after An Ideal Husband opened—for knowing himself better than the rest of “society” wanted him to.
In this, er, outing, the playwright’s on-stage mouthpiece (Lord Arthur Goring) had an exceptional advocate in the personage of Brad Hodder, whose demeanour, mannerisms, timing, body language and delivery could hardly be improved upon if Wilde worked the Avon Theatre’s boards himself. More, please!
Director Lezlie Wade wisely let Hodder carry the show; her trust in the decision was largely rewarded.
Designer Douglas Paraschuk captured this opulent era of the privileged (1895) with large-linked sets which didn’t stint on details (notably the Master’s portrait) even as Diana Coatsworth’s choreographed scene changes rightfully drew admiring applause just as the fly tower readily devoured the main courses. [Note: June 4: A reader kindly pointed out that, in fact, these transitions were from the creative mind of Wade.]
The costumes were also a marvel of invention, from Lord Goring’s foppish purple jacket to all manner of bonnets, jewels, full-length gloves and boutonnieres that any woman, or man of courage, would die for. Leslie Arden’s recorded score was cello rich (Julia MacGregor doing the honours) and at one with look and feel of the production.
As the, apparently, unblemished MP, Sir Robert Chiltern, Tim Campbell does a credible job of being audaciously confronted with a considerable sin of the past (selling a government secret for a fortune) while his wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Sophia Walker managing the wide range of emotions with ease), learns much more than she ever wanted to about the power of forgiveness in keeping reputations from being soiled and revered stations intact.
Bahareh Yaraghi does her level best playing the forever opportunistic Laura Cheveley but needs a few drops more of serial villain in her tone to convince. Her witless companion and introducer extraordinaire, Lady Markby, begins with comedic promise in the hands of Marion Adler only to become too much of a one-note disclaimer to balance the necessary moments of unbridled bombast.
Sir Robert’s sister, Mabel, admirably fulfills the role of what is known these days as “fag hag” by the effervescent take cobbled together as Zara Jestadt. Bringing light wit and dollops of sage wisdom to his every utterance is Joseph Ziegler’s characterization of Lord Goring’s longsuffering father, the Earl of Caversham.
Falling on the footsteps the opening week’s offerings—whether seen or not—and amidst the avalanche of how the mighty are getting their comeuppance in recent years, An Ideal Husband works copious amounts of forgiveness into the mix, letting the fibbers off with a mere slap on the wrist while the 21st century has—finally in many cases—put justice ahead of entitlement. And that is no laughing matter. JWR