Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde
At the opening night of his play 'Lady Windermere's Fan', Oscar Wilde  responded to the calls of 'author! author!' by striding onto the stage and addressing the audience:
'Ladies and gentlemen, I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.'
Elliot Cowan
My friend David and I showed equal intelligence earlier this week when we saw a charming rendition of Wilde's play 'An Ideal Husband' at the Vaudeville Theatre on The Strand.  The play was first performed in 1895, and ran that year concurrently with 'The Importance of Being Earnest', both in West End theatres. Both plays deal with successful men who have pasts which come back to haunt them. In the case of 'An Ideal Husband', the chap in question also has a rather insufferable wife, a divinely frou-frou younger sister, and an immensely entertaining friend named Arthur. I must mention the actor who played Arthur, aka Viscount Goring, as his performance was an exceptional example of comic timing and manner: Elliot Cowan. Wikipedia  tells me that he was born in 1976 and is known for portraying Corporal Jem Poynton in Ultimate Force, Mr Darcy in Lost in Austen and Ptolemy in the 2004 film Alexander. He's damn good.

Anyway, back to the play, which takes place mostly in a grand London society house of 1895, that of Lord and Lady Chiltern (the ideal husband and his wife). The play has great production values, with sumptuous costumes and quite magnificent sets, for such a small-scale theatre. The designer is Stephen Brimson Lewis, who comments in the program: 'having a look at some real images of houses [of the time] in Grosvenor Square...I realised it was impossible to exaggerate how unbelievably opulent they were.' 

The 'Cruela deVille' of the play is named Mrs Cheveley (Samantha Bond) and she has some wonderful dresses to wear and is very underhand and easy to boo and hiss at. The play has moment when you wonder just how serious it is going to get - it is not as light a touch overall as 'The Importance of Being Earnest', although it has its moments, and is liberally sprinkled with clever Wildean aphorisms. 

Here's the description from the blurb:

The brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s AN IDEAL HUSBAND is that it is a stylish critique of politicians and social morality, whilst leaving the audience convinced they have seen uplifting and light-hearted entertainment.
Sir Robert Chiltern (Alex Hanson) is a successful Government minister, well-off and with a loving wife (Rachael Stirling). All this is threatened when Mrs Cheveley (Samantha Bond) appears in London with damning evidence of a past misdeed. Sir Robert turns for help to his friend Lord Goring (Elliot Cowan), an apparently idle philanderer and the despair of his family.  For the next 48 hours all their lives will be turned upside down.
Elliot Cowan and Fiona Button in An Ideal Husband
 But in 1895, with two plays running in the West End and at the height of his success, Wilde's life came crashing down. By May of that year, with his conviction for homosexual offences imminent, both plays had to be taken off. he saw no further productions of any of his plays in his lifetime. 

His best known poem, 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', was published in 1898 under the pseudonym 'C33", which stood for 'Cell Block C, Landing 3, Cell 3'. It is a tragic story. [Sidebar, apropos of nothing much: the architect of reading Gaol was Gilbert Scott, architect of St Pancras].

He walked amongst the Trial Men
  In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
  And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
  So wistfully at the day.

As to the charming Vaudeville Theatre, it never ceases to amaze me how many of these delightful little theatres are sustained by the London theatre-going community. According to it's website , as the name suggests, the theatre held mostly vaudeville shows and musical revues in its early days. It opened in 1870 and was rebuilt twice, although each new building retained elements of the previous structure. The current building opened in 1926, and the capacity is now 690 seats. Rare thunder drum and lightning sheets, together with other early stage mechanisms survive in the theatre.

We didn't get thunder and lightening on our visit, but we did get a great night at the theatre.

Information from the program.
Images from:

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