This solid, entertaining, and funny production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband at Ontario’s Stratford Festival is nevertheless inert, old-fashioned, and often tone deaf.
Sometimes it feels like the Stratford Festival’s programming operates on autopilot. This season marks the return of several plays last performed about a decade ago — To Kill a Mockingbird (2007), The Music Man (2008), The Tempest (2010), Julius Caesar (2009), An Ideal Husband (2007) — as if the plays are being rolled out because it’s time rather than because someone has a vision to make the play feel relevant to today. Often, it seems like the reason is “because our older patrons find these shows entertaining.” That’s certainly the impression I got when comparing the audiences at this year’s competent, entertaining, yet irrelevant An Ideal Husband — mostly senior citizens — compared with Robert Lepage’s radical staging of Coriolanus — which skewed towards twenty- and thirtysomethings.'The greatest innovation seems to be colour-blind diversity casting: Harold Hill, Coriolanus, and Lady Chiltern are black; Julius Caesar and Prospero are played by women. Yet even some of these choices feel tone deaf.'Click To Tweet
The greatest innovation in these productions this year seems to be colour-blind diversity casting: Harold Hill, Coriolanus, and Lady Chiltern are black; Julius Caesar and Prospero are played by women. Yet even some of these choices end up feeling tone deaf. Robert Lepage’s Coriolanus (which we’ve discussed in detail on our 21st Folio Podcast) is interested in everything but the title character, and due to Lepage’s staging, the only death we see is that of a black man doing the noble thing and dying for Rome’s sins.
In a diverse production of An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chiltern’s whiteness seems like a statement: who else could get away scot-free with selling state secrets as a young man to fund a supposedly upstanding political career? Yet the production never acknowledges his white privilege, or the ways in which he is insulated from consequences other characters might have to face. In the age of #metoo, it’s hard to sympathize with guilty men who face no consequences for their crimes.
Nevertheless, with a talented cast and strong production values, Stratford has churned out a thoroughly entertaining production of An Ideal Husband that lands all the right laughs. The turn-of-the-century costumes are gorgeous, especially the daring frocks worn by the scheming Mrs Cheveley (Bahareh Yaraghi), whose plot to blackmail Robert moves the play. Robert and Lady Chiltern (a scene-stealing Sophia Walker) make for a believable pair of hypocrites: a couple so convinced of each other’s perfection that they are incapable of admitting to their own foibles.Stratford has churned out a thoroughly entertaining production of An Ideal Husband that lands all the right laughs.Click To Tweet
Their best friend, Lord Goring (Brad Hodder), is a man of no occupation who speaks a great deal of nothing, serves as welcome comic relief. Fittingly, he’s the hero who solves all of the plot’s problems for the simple reason that nothing matters much to him. His courtship with the equally frivolous Miss Mabel, Robert Chiltern’s sister, is surprisingly sweet and appropriately full of romantic tension.
The trouble with the production is that it could have been performed in any year of the last decade — or possibly even the last three decades. Staged with period costumes and a period set, with the cast doing a range of passable English accents (something I would have hoped Stratford knew was unnecessary given how often its sister festival, the Shaw Festival, regularly errs on this), nothing about this production feels like it belongs in 2018.
Chiltern’s betrayal is downgraded to a forgivable indiscretion: he feels no guilt, but cares only for how it will taint him in the eyes of his wife. He’s more annoyed at than disgusted by Mrs. Cheveley’s scheme, and seems to care much less for his constituents than for his reputation and domestic felicity. The production seems willfully blind to the politics of this, and how these events would play in 2018.
So here’s the thing: I can praise the production for its competence. It’s thoroughly entertaining and funny, if the pacing is sometimes too slow. I hope we’ll be seeing more of Walker and Yaraghi, who together steal the show through sheer talent rather than thoughtful direction. Yet everything about this production feels inert and old-fashioned, up to and including setting it on a proscenium stage.'The production is thoroughly entertaining and funny, if the pacing is sometimes too slow. Yet everything about it feels inert and old-fashioned, up to and including setting it on a proscenium stage.'Click To Tweet
This production is timeless in the worst sense of the word: it could have been mounted anytime, but it lands poorly today. This is Wilde as those who only know Wilde by reputation think Wilde should be performed, not opening it up and finding its relevance to the here and now. The production tries so hard not to offend that it fails to shock the way Wilde intended: by cracking the veneer of social acceptability that covers a multitude of sins.
and of Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, a one-man show which makes fascinating use of sound design to take us into the protagonist’s memories.