Oscar Wilde’s treatment of the related dangers of political corruption and the dangers of puritanical morality returns to the Gate under award-winning Ethan McSweeny’s direction.
Sir Robert Chiltern (Garrett Lombard) is hosting a party as the London season winds down. In a night of general aggravation Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Siobhan Cullen) is infuriated by the inattention of her erstwhile suitor the foppish Lord Goring (Marty Rea), whose sloth equally enrages his Cabinet minister father Lord Caversham (David Yelland), while Sir Robert’s wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Lorna Quinn) is outraged when her friend Lady Markby (Marion O’Dwyer) arrives with Mrs Cheveley (Aoibheann O’Hara); whose latest surname change cleverly hid the identity of a despised schoolmate. Mrs Cheveley immediately blackmails Sir Robert to push through the Commons a speculative canal in Argentina that he knows to be a fraud: either he endorses it and makes her fortune, or she will publish an incriminating letter in which he sold state secrets years before to make his fortune…
Wilde’s curtain almost divides drama and comedy. Robert wrestles with his conscience as the surprisingly wise Goring advocates that he confess to his wife and ‘fight the thing out’ with Cheveley, but Lady Chiltern’s most hysterically puritanical judgements come in this serious first half when she forces Robert to sacrifice his career by refusing to aid Mrs Cheveley, and he hates her for it; not least because she has made him such a moral ideal that he knows he’s already lost her by having done wrong years before he met her. After the curtain Wilde careens towards farce. Marty Rea Fassbenders mightly as Goring: he shrieks with surprise when his stealthy valet Phipps (Simon Coury) surprises him, turns his portrait to the wall after being unnerved by lines on its face, insists on a trivial buttonhole to make himself appear younger, desperately tries to read without glasses, and verbally fences with a sublime David Yelland as his comically disappointed father.
Marion O’Dwyer matches Rea’s tour-de-force with her proto-Lady Bracknell turn as Lady Markby, while Siobhan Cullen’s Mabel is rendered as affected as her soul-mate Goring with her repeated posing to receive a proposal that Goring neglects to make. Under McSweeny’s direction Mrs Cheveley enjoys her dirty work more than I’ve seen before, and Aoibheann O’Hara’s breathy delivery emphasises the pleasure she takes in destroying Gertrude. Lady Chiltern and Robert are the most serious roles in the play, and. Peter O’Brien’s costumes provide Lombard with trappings of office that he wears with aplomb, and he makes Robert sympathetic thru a strangulated Etonian drawl that emphasises his politician’s social-climbing nature. Lorna Quinn makes Gertrude formidable in facing down Mrs Cheveley, but the script prevents her unbending nature being made sympathetic; perhaps why Wilde diverted her downfall toward mistaken identities and purloined letters.
Francis O’Connor’s mobile door-frames allow us see the truth of scenes other characters only superficially observe and Wilde’s script similarly hides pragmatic profundities on morality and politics behind epigrams.
An Ideal Husband continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 14th of June.