A couple not unconnected with a certain "cash for questions" scandal caught the eye amongst the first-night guests at Lindsay Posner's revival of An Ideal Husband. Securing their presence was a mischievous touch, for political sleaze is the perennially topical subject of Wilde's play. Its protagonist, Sir Robert Chiltern, owes his high-flying career to having sold a Cabinet secret in his ambitious youth. He faces ruin and the collapse of his marriage to the idealistic Lady Chiltern when the blackmailing Mrs Cheveley descends on London.
The play had long been thought an uneasy mix of epigrams and melodrama until Peter Hall in the 1990s uncovered it as a masterwork of good-humoured, charitable insight into human frailty by making merry with the melodramatic excesses and giving real depth to the wit. Posner's fitfully enjoyable revival struggles to achieve a similar effect, but the result often feels strained and erratic.
The production is handsomely designed, the era's "gospel of gold" advertised in the outré gilding of the Chilterns' reception room. It is weakened, however, by one piece of crucially out-of-kilter casting. Admirable when portraying characters in the heroic mould, Elliot Cowan is permanently unrelaxed in his performance as the deceptively effete Lord Goring. I missed the negligent ease whereby this shrewdly tolerant figure hides the warmth of his perceptive heart behind the pose of the languid dandy. Indeed, I almost wished that Cowan could swap roles with Alexander Hanson who has too even-tempered an air to convey the neurotic edge of Sir Robert's misplaced sense of rectitude.
Samantha Bond is splendid, though, as Mrs Cheveley, radiating a humbug-puncturing wit that makes you realise that she and Lord Goring are, in a sense, exotic birds of a feather, the one as corrupted as the other is humanised by a talent for seeing through English hypocrisy.
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