AN IDEAL HUSBAND, Oscar Wilde Season Live, South Holland Centre, Spalding
Towards the end of the 19th century, celebrated Irish playwright Oscar Wilde wrote a drama about political intrigue, corruption in public office and the weakness of personal honour.
An Ideal Husband, screened live to an audience at Spalding’s South Holland Centre on Tuesday night, was every bit as nailbiting a story as the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Michael Dobbs and Robert Harris produce today.
Shown as the first of four plays in the Oscar Wilde Season at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, An Ideal Husband featured real-life father and son Edward and Freddie Fox among its cast.
Freddie played Viscount Goring, described by one reviewer as a “dandefied bachelor” who emerged as the fount of realism in atmosphere of failed expectations and scheming machinations all around him.
The basis of the play surrounded Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker of Inspector Lindley fame), an Anthony Eden-like figure whose outward veneer of moral incorruptibility hid a dark and shameful secret.
Worshipped by his wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Sally Brettton, of BBC sitcom Not Going Out), Sir Robert’s world is suddenly threatened by the arrival at a dinner party of the calculating Mrs Cheveley (Frances Barber, of Silk and Doctor Who).
Unbeknown to Lady Gertrude, Sir Robert’s considerable wealth came about through political “insider trading” when he was convinced by Mrs Cheveley’s mentor, Baron Arnheim, to sell him a Cabinet secret involving the purchase of stocks in a Suez Canal project before the British Government made the deal public.
Possessing a letter proving Sir Robert’s guilt, Mrs Cheveley attempts to blackmail him into speaking out in favour of what he had previously branded “a well and good stock exchange swindle”.
Valuing his public reputation, Sir Robert gives in to Mrs Cheveley’s demand before being persuaded to change his mind by his wife.
While all this is happening, Lord Goring tries to woo Sir Robert’s sister, Mabel Chiltern (Faith Omole) to satisfy his father, the Earl of Caversham (Edward Fox, The Day of the Jackal, Gandhi), who considers him to be “my good-for-nothing young son”.
Sir Robert’s salvation from public disgrace comes about through Lord Goring’s past when he and Mrs Cheveley were once an item.
After cautioning Lady Chiltern against putting her husband on a pedestal, Lord Goring finds a diamond brooch which he uses to bargain with Mrs Cheveley and get hold of the Suez Canal letter which could bring Sir Robert down.
But the rescue plan is sabotaged when, after Lady Chiltern discovers her husband’s crime, she writes a letter to Lord Goring with the words: “I need you, I trust you, I am coming to you” written on pink paper.
Mrs Cheveley steals the letter during a visit to Lord Goring’s house and his rescue plan is further jeopardised when a desperate Sir Robert finds his nemesis in his friend’s drawing room.
But when Sir Robert sees the “pink letter”, rather than suspecting his wife of having an affair with Lord Goring, he takes it as a reconciliation of their relationship, especially as Lord Goring finally plucks up the courage to propose to Mabel.
Mrs Cheveley’s plot is ultimately foiled by Sir Robert himself with a speech in Parliament against the canal scheme.
For anyone who finds Shakespeare plays too complex and too “old English”, Oscar Wilde is a welcome and credible alternative.
Review by Winston Brown