Review by Mark Wickett
‘Truth is a very complex thing,’ says Sir Robert Chiltern in Oscar Wilde’s play, and Matthew Chapman’s interpretation does more than entertain in this study on truth. This drama set amongst the changing London society at the end of the nineteenth century shouldn’t have much to say 128 years later, yet it still gives 2023’s Adelaide a number of sharp pokes. There are debates on corrupt politicians, observations on differences in young and old, and commentary on living both public and private ‘truths’.
Even before curtain up, Genevieve Venning and Rose Harvey delight us with improvised society conversation in the auditorium. They are gossipy society wives, sharing their truths only with each other, faking smiles, compliments, and a lack of hunger to anyone else who dares to converse. They are our first glimpses of a contemporary reality beneath the gorgeous period gowns – the more confident version is seen, the insecure reality only there when no one is looking.
Yet this story is about more than hiding the truth, it’s sacrificing everything to keep that reality from the public eye. In An Ideal Husband, it’s an indiscretion with a state secret, sold for enough money to set up a young man for life, and now that young man is Sir Robert Chiltern (a stern Stuart Pearce), an Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Anita Pipprell) believes him to be the perfect husband – everyone else thinks this too, though there is plenty of conversation across this stage that a husband without imperfection is dull and undesirable. Pearce is convincing as a man breaking under the stress of his secret, and Pipprell does well as the loyal wife, moving her lips smoothly between stiff-upper and quivering, not prepared to accept the truth and its consequences: ‘Lie to me! Lie to me!’ she begs.
This tension between proper and pleasure is pulled taut by a conniving Mrs Cheveley, who holds the evidence of Chiltern’s youthful mistake, and is prepared to bring him down unless he uses his parliamentary power to steer towards investment, rather than away. Angela Short is vivid, playful and wicked as the calculating woman, and with the boldest costumes to make sure we know who holds the power. She has learned not to care about scandal, so it can’t touch her – but she’s met her match with the young playboy, Lord Goring. He cares just as little about reputation, though he can afford to, being able to do nothing and spend his father’s money.
Maxwell Whigham devours the role of Goring, convincingly clever, with the gift of charm and elocution – he takes Wilde’s driest, sharpest lines and delivers them not as standalone quotes, but in the flow of dialogue, as they should be – you have to be quick-witted to pick up on them all. He is constantly dapper in tails, both evening and morning, and he only has one real secret: his true age – an insecurity that Whigham nails in an exchange with his valet, Phipps (Berny Abberdan, showing the right balance of respect and sarcasm to the class in which she serves, yet does not live).
Rhoda Sylvester plays Mabel, Sir Robert’s sister, and the only person for whom Goring appears to have a weakness: he plays tough, but she is tougher, countering every Goring witticism with a better one of her own. Sylvester is lively and effective as perhaps the only character who lives her truth.
Lindsay Dunn is wonderfully proper as Goring’s father, the Earl of Caversham, trying to steer his son towards a more structured and expected way of living, but is constantly frustrated by Goring’s flippancy. There’s a more believable chemistry between him and Whigham, than between Whigham and Sylvester.
Megan Dansie is delightfully erratic as Lady Markby – even her occasional forgotten lines fit her character, and Linda LeCornu seems to be having a lot of fun keeping a seen-it-all-before face as the Chiltern’s butler. There’s great comedy in both these characterisations, made better for playing them straight. Brad Martin rounds out the cast playing the two remaining parts – the French diplomat Vicomte de Nanjac and Mr. Trafford, and we don’t see enough of him in those two personas.
The set design from Bob Peet makes good use of a walled room that changes function by replacing wall panels with windows or shelves of ancient books. Richard Parkhill’s always-excellent lights add volume to the four scenes, contrasting warm evening tones with much cooler sunlight through the windows of the Chiltern’s morning room.
Director Matthew Chapman places his cast well on the stage, managing the multiple entrances and exits without it devolving to a cheap farce – and introduces some subtleties to the words through good pacing and opportunity to pause, though it leans a little too much to Bridgerton (the use here of contemporary music in period style is distracting). Some rapid dialogue is lost when an actor is upstage, turning away from us, and the set changes are lengthy – though it’s smart to start the next scene in front of the curtain whilst still preparing the stage behind.
The story is well told, balancing philosophy and comedy with each of its characters, and is a great study of truth, its importance to others – as a strength and a weapon. No less is its value to us, where we learn from Chiltern who says: ‘That is the great thing in life, to live the truth’.