The Adelaide Rep’s production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is stylish. All production elements are well designed and executed, and director Matthew Chapman has made some interesting casting decisions. More on that later.
The plot follows Sir Robert Chiltern (played by Stuart Pearce), a popular and respected member of the House of Commons, as he tries to avoid scandal and ruin at the hands of Mrs. Cheveley (Angela Short), a former school chum of his wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Anita Pipprell), who tries to blackmail him into reversing a political decision to advantage herself by exposing that early in his career he advantaged himself and built his own fortune by selling a government secret. Shock! Scandal! Hardly an ideal situation, and it would never happen today, would it (wink, wink)?! Mrs. Cheveley is unscrupulous and does her level best to have her way, including undermining Lady Gertrude’s trust in her husband, whom she hitherto esteems, and importuning Lord Arthur Goring (Maxwell Whigham), Robert’s best friend, to marry her as an additional price to keep her silence. In the meantime, Goring’s father, the Earl of Caversham (Lindsay Dunn) is urging Arthur to give up his idle lifestyle and get married as a matter of urgency, and so Arthur doubles down on his attraction to Robert’s sister Mabel Chiltern (Rhoda Sylvester) and pursues her. Along the way, there are parties and receptions and various titled and untitled ladies and gentlemen come and go, add colour and gossip, and opine about society, relationships, and keeping face. The language is typical Wilde, and it’s diverting.
Some of the age relativities of cast members are awkward. Maxwell Whigham is somewhat younger than both Stuart Pearce and Angela Short which potentially undermines the believability of the ‘best friends’ and ‘marriage’ scenarios respectively.
In presenting Wilde, a production company generally chooses to be authentic to the original style, or to take an entirely different approach, such as Queensland’s LaBoite’s 2022 production that gave the play a complete makeover. The Rep has chosen to recreate the style of 1895, in looks and manner, and they have generally been successful. Having said that, several choices for entr’acte music were decidedly not of the period and jarred, despite any subliminal messaging that might have been intended.
Bob Peet’s set design is very attractive, with beautiful period furnishings and properties (courtesy of Emily Currie, Hannah Dunwell, and Lidya Arway). The design includes simple but effective scenic devices to transform the set from one well-appointed room in a stately home to that in another. The transitions happen relatively quickly behind a closed curtain while Chapman deploys some minor scenes – not all entirely necessary – to take place in front. Richard Parkhill’s lighting almost has an old-fashioned limelight aura to it, and the set is the better for it.
Gillian Cordell and Raechel Carroll’s costuming is very attractive, with gentlemen variously dressed in tail or morning suits (mostly well fitted), and ladies in fulsome gowns and dresses, with appropriate hair styling (Annie Smith and Rebecca Claire). The attractive looks, however, aren’t always complemented by the available footwear.
Pearce is warm and convincing as Sir Robert. One believes he really deserves his solid reputation despite his error of judgement in his youth. Anita Pipprell moves confidently around the stage and gives Lady Gertrude a sense of grace, bearing and balance. Rhoda Sylvester plays Mabel with playful charm and a suitable hint of coquettishness. Megan Dansie is ebullient as Lady Markby, and despite some opening night nerves, relishes the dialogue. Lindsay Dunn’s Earl of Caversham is played with his trademark understatement. Angela Short very quickly gives the audience permission to dislike Mrs. Cheveley. Mission accomplished. In the minor roles, Genevieve Venning and Rose Harvey play Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont with suitable imperiousness and eccentricity, and Brad martin does a wonderful job in his dual roles of Vicomte de Nanjac and Mr. Trafford. He gives an amusing but convincing sense of distinctiveness. Lindy LeCornu and especially Bernadette Abberdan (as Phipps) play gender-bending butlers to various households with a delicious mix of loyalty, duty, unflappable composure, and barely disguised contempt!
And then there’s Maxwell Whigham as Lord Arthur! Whigham charmingly captures the style, manner and bearing of an idle rich young man. His diction is precise, and his styled use of gesture, stance and general body language is most enjoyable. Whigham is the icing on a well-made and decorated cake!