There’s more than a touch of the snooty, well connected shopkeepers Prue and Trude in Lady Markby, Oscar Wilde’s staunch upper-class conservative who bemoans the education of women and the impact of politics on married life.
That’s according to Gina Riley – known for creating and playing Kim in Kath and Kim (and donning a grey bob wig to play Trude) – who is stepping into Markby’s shoes and appropriately stiff corset for Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.
“She’s a socialite on the wrong side of 45,” Riley says of the character. “She’s very sure of her place in society and doesn’t quite understand people who want to change the status quo.”
Life has been good to Lady Markby, who sees peril in moving with the quickly shifting sands of society, and comments: “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.”
Although she’s played some big roles on stage, most of Riley’s TV career has been in satirising contemporary Australia’s conservatism and frequently unacknowledged class structure. Wilde’s play took a similarly scathing approach to 1890s London society.
“I think that’s probably a comedian’s job – to hold a mirror,” she says. “Not in a preachy way or anything, but I think you can, when you’re funny, be quite political, and people will be entertained and listen in a different way to if you’re just doing the facts. Some people would say what I’ve done is not political at all and others think it’s very political. It’s all in the eye of beholder, I think.”
At the centre of An Ideal Husband is an upstanding politician, Robert Chiltern (played by Les Misérables star Simon Gleeson), who is blackmailed over past misdeeds by his wife’s former schoolmate (played by Christie Whelan Browne).
While the specifics of the plot could only have come out of a particular time and place, Riley says it speaks to the hypocritical moralising of politicians – a kind she felt was on clear display during last year’s postal survey on same-sex marriage – in a way that feels utterly contemporary. Not only that, but Wilde’s trademark wit and wordplay still packs a punch.
“The word ‘genius’ is bandied around about men too much, but he is an incredible writer,” she says.
Unlike most of Riley’s TV work, her character is on the periphery of the play, commenting on the action as it unfolds. But she also gets some of Wilde’s best punchlines.
“I’m of an age now where these parts come along: she just walks on stage, drops a whole lot of zingers, then exits stage left and everybody else has to do all the heavy lifting. I’m loving the idea of all of that.”
Director Dean Bryant says that while Lady Markby isn’t the protagonist, she’s essential to grounding the play and establishing the social structure. That requires an actor with a unique combination of gravitas and comic chops.
“Gina has such a brilliant ability to tread the line of ridiculousness while looking terribly serious,” Bryant says. “In all her best comic work it’s clear she really is a great actor – you believe those humans and you absolutely know who they are – but she still has a weird comic cog in the back of her head.”
That cog will be turning quickly at each performance as Riley works to make the comedy spring to life each night for a live audience. It takes a different set of skills to nailing a great take for TV, but Riley says she gets a much better sense of how well a performance is going.
“Theatre is much more rewarding if you’re trying to be funny because you get the immediate response. Well, you hope you get the immediate response and if you don’t, you change what you do the next night. Silence is not what you want to hear at the end of your zinger.”