An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

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BBC Radio 3, 14 February 2010
Written just before The Importance of Being Earnest (rebroadcast late last year by Radio 7), An Ideal Husband proves that Wilde could reel off witticisms while making cogent criticisms of the English upper class. To some minds, George Bernard Shaw's among them, An Ideal Husband was the better play (as opposed to Earnest). In recent years it has proved popular in the British theatre: Peter Hall's revival toured for many years, as well as playing the West End and Broadway, with the late Richard Todd as the Earl of Caversham. Oliver Parker's anaemic film version (1999) with Rupert Everett failed to erase memories of Alexander Korda's earlier attempt (1947) with Paulette Goddard in the lead.

David Timson's radio revival underlined the social and political tensions lurking beneath the polished surface of the text. Consider the end of the first act: Lady Chiltern (Emma Fielding) is shocked to discover that Sir Robert, her outwardly upstanding husband (Alex Jennings) has a shady past; he will be ruined unless Mrs. Cheveley (Janet McTeer), a blackmailing 'woman in heliotrope with diamonds,' has her demands fulfilled. But as soon as Lady Chiltern feels betrayed, Robert tries to justify himself by talking about the curative powers of love: "It is not the perfect, but the imperfect who have need of love.'' Jennings delivered this line in a passionate tone; his voice became shriller and shriller as he tried to explain the reason for his youthful transgression: "I did not sell myself for money ... I bought success at a great price. That is all.''

An Ideal Husband takes a long hard look at Sir Robert Chiltern's (Alex Jennings') past, and asks whether he has sufficient moral clout to function as an effective Member of Parliament. At a time when the behaviour of today's MPs is under close scrutiny - particularly their extravagant claims for expenses - An Ideal Husband still has the capacity to disturb as well as entertain. One can't help thinking of the Stephen Sondheim song from his immortal musical Follies: 'Ah, but Underneath.'

At the same time Timson offered ample opportunities for other members of his cast to show off their vocal skills. "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people whom we personally dislike," intoned Mrs. Cheveley, as she remained blissfully indifferent to Sir Robert's entreaties. Social roles meant nothing to her; she believed it was her right to hold her MP to ransom. As performed by Sara Kestelman, Lady Markby came across as the precursor of Lady Bracknell in Earnest: "As a rule, everybody turns out to be somebody else," she surmised soon after her first appearance. Viscount Goring (Jasper Britton), ostensibly Sir Robert's best friend and confidante, came across as a supreme narcissist. He showed no real concern for his best friend; what mattered more was that he (Goring) should be in at the kill if Sir Robert was going to be ruined. 

This revival was impeccably cast, with Geoffrey Palmer (Lord Caversham), Kestelman and Fielding outstanding in their respective roles. They seemed thoroughly at home with the Wildean text, taking due care to pronounce each word clearly, allowing each witticism to impress itself on the listeners' consciousness. This production reminded us of Wilde's ability to write good roles for everyone, irrespective of gender or age.