Some people complain that there are too many standing ovations given in the theatre. Well, at the end of the press night of this new production of Oscar Wilde’s comic drama, or serious comedy, I cannot understand why one was not given. The show richly deserves one.
A wise insider told me, ‘All you need to do this play is to have seven of the best actors in the country’. And that is what we get. Edward Fox (creating uproarious humour through the perfection of his timing) may top the bill, but it is his spawn, Freddie, whose show we are really watching. Fox Jnr plays Lord Goring, a pretty life-like self-portrait by Wilde, as if he were born to (and perhaps he was); his powerful energy drives the intellectual wit and gaiety of the play, as his snaking movements dance arabesques around the others stuck in their stiff, Lord Leighton-esque tableaux. He has a dream of a voice – capable of the penetrative blare of a bugle or the floating pianissimo serenade of a violin. However, he is the outsider who is there to fix other people’s problems. His adversary is Frances Barber’s remarkably drawn adventuress, Mrs Cheveley, a woman who begins trapped in elaborate couture designed to divert attention away from the fading of her personal charms (costumes courtesy of the superb designer, Simon Higlett), but who quickly graduates into a pacing, hissing and fighting battler who sets about blackmail and scandal-mongering to get her way. The first three acts of the play are essential their story, and this heavenly production by Jonathan Church heroically argues the case for us to put them in the same league as the finest of Wilde’s dramatic creations.
If only the writer had had the sense to maintain that focus into the fourth act. Disappointingly, all this drive is taken away from us in the final scene, with Mrs Cheveley banished from the stage, and the play just lets its main point carelessly slip through its fingers. But who cares? Up to that point, we have enjoyed two hours and more in the company of a really sterling clash of theatrical titans, with Barber making her Cheveley into easily the most complex and fascinating character on display. Running her a close second, however, is Susan Hampshire’s surprise handling of Lady Markby, an apparently anodyne creature, but – in the hands of this master craftswoman of the theatre – becomes a perfectly drawn portrait of a society grande-dame whose placid exterior in no way conceals the fiercely reliable instincts underneath: not for nothing, I think, did she alone walk off with an exit ovation after her show-piece speech in which, in the nicest possible way, she tears Cheveley to pieces.
As the target of the Cheveley scheming, however, Nathaniel Parker plays a game entirely of his own. Beginning as a perfectly vapid non-entity of a smug, shallow politico, his experience going through the mill of blackmail becomes a completely transformative one: his suffering allows him to cast off his old, plaster of Paris shell, and he takes on the living, breathing contours of a real man. If only the same could be said of his wife! The curse of the part of Lady Chiltern is that the dainty tiara of her niceness is all that remains to crown the evening, once the stock of jewels of the Cheveley emporium has been chased away. Every audience knows this is a bum deal, even when Sally Bretton is doing everything she can to make us believe her closing Congrevian scene with her hubby is what the play is really about.
Of course, it isn’t. I wonder if Faith Omole, as Mabel Chiltern (whom we are asked to imagine as Lord G’s inamorata), doesn’t also doubt this? She does seem to take much more delight in the struggle than in the winning of the prize.
Around these charming people, we can also admire Rebecca Charles as the Countess of Basildon and Joanna van Kampen as her partner-in-society-appearances, Mrs Marchmont. Tameka Mortimer puts in a good turn as the Duchess of Maryborough, Sam Parks totters around as the Vicomte de Nanjac, and Michael Peters makes a smooth Mr Montford. And then there are the servants: Sam Archer as Mason, Sam Barrett as James, Tim Wallers as Phipps and Samuel Martin as Harold (and a very capable violinist, stringing together the acts with Jason Carr’s pretty salon suite). It’s a handsomely filled stage, gorgeous to look at, and expertly managed. The central narrative of corruption in high places could have been written yesterday, and the contortions of people to either (a) make hay out of it or (b) do everything possible to hush it up, could have been written yesterday. Nothing much seems to have changed.