The first thing to say is that this show looks gorgeous (Dale Ferguson set and costume design, lighting by Matt Scott). Massive yellow curtains (I’m wild(e) for those curtains; those really, really, gorgeous curtains), alternate with sheer drops and reflective panels; the latter set at a tantalising angle suggestive of sooo much space and soooo much wealth, and so many corners and alcoves, within which to dally with a companion or chance to overhear incriminating conversations.
Changes of locale are similarly lavish and luxurious (not to say lush), so that this Melbourne Theatre Company production drips with an elegance most of us can only wonder at.
However, even dressed in all of this this finery (the costumes, did I say? Sumptuous!) – the play is a bit, how can I put it – creaky.
An incredibly talented politician (if you can imagine such a one) of great nobility and unimpeachable integrity, once did something bad (oops!) and now faces exposure. A circumstance in these cynical times to confirm our assumptions rather than elicit shock.
And, after an awkward opening, with actors who were just a bit too youthful for the savage-sharp, though rather jaded, superficiality of Oscar Wilde-bitchery; we settle in for an amusing, if predictably so, evening. It’s the same comfortable feeling a really solid B grade midday movie used to elicit, Before cable. In this case, eight parts melodrama and two parts humorous interjection with, initially, the humour sitting atop the action, rather than slicing through it.
Dean Bryant’s staging is MTC solid, which is to say, sound and saved by his actors.
Because, just before interval, Gina Riley (Lady Markby – a Lady Bracknell prototype) came to call. She gives one of those performances where you can’t really remember why she was there or even what she said – and I’m still puzzled as to how her impersonation of my Aunty Meryl (with a large pinch of my Aunty Vera) could be so acute – but the laughs that accompanied her every utterance were constant, and earned. One especially seemed to be contrived of a slight look sideways and a grunt.
I swear she made laughs where there were none, just wrinkled them out of thin air: ’I seen ‘er do it!’
For me, the scene marked a turning point and what had been a mildly diverting show became genuinely engaging.
Curiously it’s the elder characters (Riley and William McIness as The Earl of Caversham) that end up holding this production together. They are rock solid presences. In a true Wildeian spin on cultural stereotypes of the day, Lady Markby is a rather masculine female and the Lord is what one might term a ‘feminine’ male (doubly funny given his gloriously deep voice and large physique). She’s brisk and bracing, he’s sentimental and prone to tears, outrage and irrational emotional outbursts. They work a treat.
There are some terrific performances from the rest of the core cast; Christie Whelan Browne in particular, as the wicked Mrs Cheveley really delivers. Poised, elegant, devastating; her precise diction and amazingly sure sense of timing are a joy, her hilarious farce-worthy work with a set of French doors, an inspiration!
Brent Hill is fun as the foppish (‘to love oneself is the beginning of a life long romance’) Lord Goring, gaining assurance as the night wears on. Likewise Michelle Lim Davidson (‘second palm from the left – the usual one’), a naughty and adorable turn, as the wilful Miss Mabel Chilton.
These two most trivial persons displaying, of course, the most devastating self-knowledge, the most clear-eyed understanding of the world.
In the rather thankless roles of the self-righteous Sir Robert Chilton, and his self-righteous-er wife, are Simon Gleeson and Zindzi Okenyo.
Gleeson struggles, at his best when, the truth being ‘out’, he berates his wife, extolling the virtues of ‘a man’s love’ (‘It is wider, larger, more human than a woman’s’) and blaming her for his own shortcomings: ’Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely.’ He may have a point, but the impulse to deflect is telling and you can’t help wishing she’d slap him and walk out the door, like Nora in A Doll’s House.
Okenyo gives a steady performance, emphasising the Pankhurst-ish tendencies of Lady Chiltern so at odds (or maybe not) with her rigid, romantic certainty.
As servants and sundry others Jem Lai, Greta Sherriff, Joseph Lai and Josh Price round out the cast.
Mathew Frank’s composition and sound design enhances scenes rather than determining, thematically and skilfully linking what feels, at times, like a piece of pure contrivance.
Because this really is a dated play though here, it’s beautifully, wittily and Wilde-ly executed.
Photo of (foreground L-R) Christie Whelan Browne, Gina Riley and Zindzi Okenyo in MTC’s An Ideal Husband: Jeff Busby