Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Witty tale of corruption sparkles with some flashes of brilliance

IN Oscar Wilde there are always two plays. One is the play of aphorism -- where we jump from one glittering joke to another, as though a frisbee is being thrown with deadly accuracy from one actor to another -- and the drama is held up by the richly earned laughter of the audience. The other play is the story: who is loving, betraying, helping or threatening another character. 'An Ideal Husband' is the quintessence of this.

It is Wilde's best-constructed, most convincing drama about political power and corruption, the hero notable for being himself corrupt and wanting to cover this up. The story is relevant today, though not in its serious prejudice against women. We are swept into the most sumptuous of settings -- the life surrounding Sir Robert Chiltern being one of threatened wealth, that of his friend, Lord Goring, one of perceptive indolence. They circle each other in a complex and potentially tragic drama, provoked by the arrival in London, from sinful Vienna, of the freebooter, the wicked Mrs Cheveley.

These three are not perfectly matched in this production. Simon Wilson's playing of Sir Robert is a bit one-dimensional. Mark O'Halloran is a strong, even noisy Lord Goring, but not quite suave enough. Derbhle Crotty is a bit too brassy to have got into the Grosvenor Square house of the hero; even more so of his frosty, demanding wife, a difficult role played with dedicated care by Natalie Radmall-Quirke. But the power and thrust given to this "action" part of the play by director Neil Bartlett more than sustains shortages of subtlety or charm in Wilde's unique penetration of the English character.

On the level of aphoristic brilliance, Deirdre Donnelly is wonderful as Lady Markby. Her speeches in the second act represent a triumphal parade of Wilde at his best and wittiest. The acting of this episode is so well done, so clever in terms of her character, like a glittering necklace flashing out jewels of wit. Isolated jokes are delivered well by others, but have nothing on the sustained truthfulness of Lady Markby's interpretation of the world.

Sets are uneven, design at times sloppy, with the required sumptuousness not convincingly there. The best setting is Lord Goring's intimate house in Curzon Street. But act one is a travesty of what Wilde called for in his text. Surely the Abbey could have afforded a carpet?