MORALITY, MELODRAMA, AND MANSERVANTS…
“Suppose I drive down to some newspaper office” says the foxy blackmailerine Mrs Cheveley to the horrified MP Sir Robert Chiltern “And give them this scandal and the proofs of it! Think of their loathsome joy…of the hypocrite with his greasy smile, penning his leading article and arranging the foulness of the public placard!”. Ah, they did scandals with more style in 1894. None of this footling plebgate / paisley pajama / white van nonsense. Years ago as a minister’s secretary, Sir Robert sold a government secret to a foreign Baron, thus founding his personal wealth and career. Now Mrs C with her pussycat smile, has the letter down her heliotrope-silk cleavage…
Oscar Wilde’s play is often trimmed a lot, to focus on the melodramatically twisty triple-blackmail plot with its dramatico-farcical devices of misunderstanding, overhearings and a mysterious bracelet. Some directors take the red pen to numerous Wildeisms, and trim the rather long, indeed almost Shavian, discursive monologues about moral relativisim, hypocrisy and the uses of wealth, leading to the central message – poignant one given poor Oscar’s own imminent disgrace – that it is not perfect people but imperfect ones who need love and redemption. Here, however, director Rachel Kavanaugh lets it run its full wordy length (nearly three hours) taking in the various comic divertissements and epigrammatic loghorrea of the original.
So it does, at first, feel a bit like music being defiantly played on “authentic instruments”. The supple, subtle modern cast (led by Robert Bathurst dissolving in credible horror as the MP) sometimes seem to be curating rather than invigorating the text. Jemma Redgrave’s Mrs Cheveley seems positively uncomfortable in the almost Downtonesque stilted social chat of the first scenes. It’s easier, perhaps, for the virtuous wife – Laura Rogers – since Wilde intends her to be an awful prig at first, with her Women’s League do-goodery, grey frocks, and rash belief that her husband has no sin in him.
But fear not. Relax into it. And just as you’re wondering whether the main delight (no inconsiderable one) will be Simon Higlett’s gorgeous late-Victorian swags and furbelows, a recognizable human reality flowers and becomes properly touching. Even the evil Mrs Cheveley gets the very modern epitaph “She wore far too much rouge and not enough clothes. Always a sign of despair in a woman”. There is real fire and fun in Jamie Glover’s lively Lord Goring: the apparent hedonist, wit and timewaster based on Wilde himself, who works in his orientalesque bachelor rooms to save the day because “Life cannot be lived without much charity”.
And there’s even more joy to be had from the veterans. A more hurried production would give less acreage to the dowager Lady Markby and her theories of the world, and to Goring’s grandee of an old Dad, Sir Edward Caversham. But Kavanaugh has got Patricia Routledge and Edward Fox in the parts, and you don’t go wasting chances like that. Both are wonderful, a masterclass in aged stage-stealing: Routledge rattles on like a grand fin-de-siecle version of her turn as Victoria Wood’s “Kitty”, and there is timeless artistry in Fox’s pause before asking his flippant son, in heavy despairing tones “Do you always really understand what you say?”.
Wilde would adore them both. Neither Fox nor Routledge often got offstage on the first night without enduring a round of affectionate applause. But that’s fine. It’s 1894. And nearly Christmas. And Chichester has had its first season in a grand new theatre. Hurrah for everything.
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