Gina Riley leads a starry cast in Melbourne Theatre Company's zesty fresh take on Oscar Wilde's classic comedy
It’s a scenario that seems fashioned out of the zeitgeist: a wealthy, respected man is threatened with ruin by the revelation of a single act of corruption in his youth, and a society twists itself in knots to protect and shield him from dishonour. But this is Oscar Wilde, so we can rest assured that nothing will comply precisely with societal norms, and we’re certain to have a hell of a lot of fun on the way down.
An Ideal Husband is Wilde’s most serious comedy, which places it somewhere between the frivolous genius of his perfect farce The Importance of Being Earnest and the luxurious solemnity of his highly symbolic Salomé. It plays alternately as a sophisticated comedy of manners and a proto-noir thriller; blackmail, insider trading and political intrigue rub up against flirtation, marital skirmish and appropriate uses of the button-hole.
Sir Robert Chiltern (Simon Gleeson) is the coming man in late Victorian society, a politician of strict and unimpeachable ideals. His wife, Lady Chiltern (Zindzi Okenyo) holds him to these ideals; she’d place him on a literal pedestal if she could explain it to her guests. These include her gloriously frivolous sister-in-law Mabel (Michelle Lim Davidson), the scandalously entertaining Lord Goring (Brent Hill) and his phlegmatic father the Earl of Caversham (William McInnes), the chief gossip Lady Markby (Gina Riley) and her mysterious, and subsequently dangerous, friend Mrs Cheveley (Christie Whelan Browne).
The plot is too good to give away; needless to say, the fiendish Mrs Cheveley has a considerable ace up her sleeve, and the famously respectable Sir Robert will have to manipulate his way out of the oncoming scandal if he’s to spare his friends and neighbours (not a jot of concern for himself, of course, how dare one even suggest it). His wife will become the bait and the hook, before the nightmare is resolved; but then, his bestie Lord Goring might also have to take a hit or two. It’s a veritable bend-over-backwards for the ideal husband, and all who are drawn into his orbit.
Director Dean Bryant has an embarrassment of riches to play with in the casting department. Whelan Browne is a flat-out star, the kind you can’t look away from, and she squeezes every last morsel of malice out of the role. But better than that, she suggests a kinder, brighter person underneath, subsumed by circumstance. Gleeson is a superb Chiltern, wistfully lost but with a chin that juts out whenever he’s directly challenged. It’s the perfect portrait of vulnerable masculinity, and almost shockingly resonant. Okenyo is beautifully modulated as his wife, rigid in her idealism at first, but increasingly sympathetic in her distress. Davidson is a knockout as the flighty Mabel, with a vocal delivery that snaps around the dialogue like a venus fly-trap. Best of all, though, is Hill as the seemingly shallow man with the most substance, Lord Goring; his breezy approach to the witticisms is so natural it seems almost cavalier. He’s so winning you barely notice the stealth with which he suggests the character’s depth of humanism.
There’s so much to like in this production, but it’s not perfect. Riley and McInnes are by far the most famous actors on the stage and, while they have plenty of comic chops and are never less than entertaining, they tend to tilt the work away from cutting sophistication and towards a kind of knowing buffoonery. Bryant’s direction hasn’t quite got the diamond sharpness that Wilde needs, and every so often an archness of tone seeps in. It’s a little thing, but in a work of such mechanical precision, it’s noticeable.
Dale Ferguson’s set, with its lush yellow curtains and vaulting ceilings, is sumptuous and his costumes are stunning; they’re so ornate and detailed they recall Cecil Beaton. Matt Scott’s lighting is also very fine, shifting the mood from frothy to melancholic and back again. Matthew Frank’s sound design, however, is cheesy and prescriptive. We don’t need music to tell us we’re in a melodrama. Given how many of the cast can sing, maybe their voices could have been used during the transitions, but even silence would be better than what we get here.
Overall, though, the production is a total delight; the racially diverse cast are top-notch, the design is elegant and the script is possibly sharper and more relevant than ever. This kind of large-scale, invigorating approach to a classic play is exactly what the Melbourne Theatre Company do so well, and there’s no doubt it’s going to be a palpable hit.