Corsets are off;Set plays;Theatre

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
AN IDEAL HUSBAND. By Oscar Wilde. Northampton Royal Theatre.

Director Sean Aita has updated Wilde's social drama from the 1890s to the 1930s. "He wrote it as a modern-dress piece, about modern society and moral behaviour."

Why the thirties? "The national government under Ramsay MacDonald was almost a Labour-led administration. We could have used Blair's champagne socialism but Lady Chiltern's moral code is difficult to take in a 1990s setting. The rich lifestyle was often the same in the 1890s and 1930s, with dressing for dinner and people presented at court," Aita says.

But the main reason for the shift in period is stylistic, not historical. "Actors can find 19th-century costumes lead to posed, formalised playing which risks becoming museum theatre."

Moral purist Lady Chiltern finds her husband Sir Robert paying attention to Mrs Cheveley, but she is unaware Mrs Cheveley is blackmailing him over a secret that could cost him his political career.

Both Mrs Cheveley and Sir Robert have transgressed moral codes, but as a woman she iscondemned while he is held up for admiration, despite having used information gathered as a minister for personal gain.

This production adds some final business, with a servant piecing together the shredded evidence of Chiltern's wrong-doing, to suggest he may not get off scot-free. Still, Aita says, Wilde's play "is about forgiveness, reconciliation and asks whether people should be judged for their faults".

Judgment is often tempered by personal considerations, so there is a gain in a modernised setting that allows more touches of intimacy between the Chilterns. Thirties behaviour also allows for less formality between the leading males. "It alters the way the play feels, making it more accessible, relaxing the performances" - taking out the corsetry (literal and metaphorical).

There's been a delicate filleting of Wilde's text to remove the more melodramatic features. The result, claims Aita, is truthful and strong, showing Wilde's astute observation of how power corrupts. "The play seeks a truth higher than money. And there's the theme of secrecy which runs through his work."

Lady Chiltern learns a lot, her moral code being tested against reality. There is a danger she can seem offputtingly puritanical. To avoid that, Aita has cast Eliza-beth Morton - "a very gentle actress. Lady Chiltern believes circumstances should never alter principles. She has a beatific quality, which for much of the play Sir Robert tries not to destroy. We are looking for the innocence in her, not wanting her to seem a prig."

Recreating the Chilterns as a couple from the 1930s is the most significant act in updating the play which, though now set in the heyday of Noel Coward, is very unlike Coward's brittle comedy.

"It's a serious play, with its arguments and discussions about life," says the director. "It would be a powerful political drama without Wilde's leavening wit, expressed mostly through Lord Goring, another outsider whose wit delights in challenging accepted norms."

Timothy Ramsden

Until April 25. Tickets: 01604 632533

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