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From left: Jonelle Gunderson as Mrs. Margaret Marchmont, Brad Hodder as Lord Arthur Goring and Déjah Dixon-Green as Lady Olivia Basildon in An Ideal Husband.

Emily Cooper

  • Title: An Ideal Husband
  • Written by: Oscar Wilde
  • Director: Lezlie Wade
  • Actors: Brad Hodder, Bahareh Yaraghi
  • Company: The Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Avon Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Runs: to Oct. 28

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When should we pardon and when should we punish men who prove to be less than ideal?

An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comic melodrama, originally presented an audience with just such a conundrum – and a hero, Lord Goring, who pleads for women to love men and forgive them their trespasses.

But director Lezlie Wade’s mostly sparkling new production at the Stratford Festival, reading the tenor of the times, alters what Wilde has to say to make his essential message more universal – and then, also, smartly raises an eyebrow to add: Up to a point, Lord Goring.

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An Ideal Husband is a typically unwieldy Wildean mix of comedy and melodrama. It begins at a party in London where Sir Robert Chiltern (Tim Campbell), Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, is confronted by Mrs. Cheveley (Bahareh Yaraghi) – who possesses a letter that he wrote 18 years earlier and which demonstrates that he sold a state secret to procure the fortune that launched his political career.

If Sir Robert does not now publicly support a canal scheme she’s invested in, Mrs. Cheveley threatens to drop this note off at a London newspaper’s office. “Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in dragging you down, of the mud and mire they would plunge you in,” she tells him. “Think of the hypocrite with his greasy smile penning his leading article, and arranging the foulness of the public placard.”

But Sir Robert is not merely worried about public shame: His wife Lady Gertrude (Sophia Walker) is a true believer in his absolute goodness and unblemished soul, and is quick to say that she would walk away if she ever learned anything to the contrary.

What a pickle! Thankfully, the dandy Lord Goring (Brad Hodder) is around to find a way to thwart Mrs. Cheveley, who happens to be his ex-fiancée, and keep scandal private and the Chilterns together – all the while whipping out witticisms, keeping his buttonholes plugged with fresh flowers and dodging a father threatening him with an even worse fate than disgrace: marriage.

On the surface, An Ideal Husband is strange makings for a comedy – asking an audience to root for the cover-up of corruption. But almost since it premiered in 1895, spectators have tended to look beneath the surface of the play, knowing that, while it was still in its initial London run, Wilde unwisely sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for “gross indecency.”

It’s hard to hear of private letters and blackmail and the greasy smiles of columnists without thinking of Wilde’s impending real-world tribulations – and the play as an allegory in advance. As the playwright himself told us in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is at once surface and symbol.”

An Ideal Husband’s surface is definitely privileged in Wade’s production – which keeps the play light and entertaining and does a good job of navigating its strange swings in tone, a few tiresome exchanges of epigrams and overdone accents aside.

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As Lord Goring, Brad Hodder inexplicably speaks a few decibels louder than the rest of the cast – but he makes his character’s stream of one-liners and physical flourishes very enjoyable. He’s at his funniest opposite a deliciously deadpan Joseph Ziegler as the Lord’s utterly uncharmed father; and second-funniest trading bons mots with Mabel, an unconvincing romantic partner for Lord Goring but utterly charming as portrayed with a subtly contemporary spin by Zara Jestadt.

Campbell is very likeable as Sir Robert; Walker makes the priggish Lady Gertrude at least somewhat palatable; and Yaraghi has fun vamping it up as Mrs. Cheveley, dazzling in a series of increasingly devilish dresses designed by Patrick Clark.

But Wade has also obviously thought about where the play sits in the current times. In her director’s note, she complicates the context of Wilde’s play by noting that “radical feminists” were “influential in having the Labouchère Amendment” – the one that made gross indecency a crime – “passed in 1885.”

Indeed, the amendment in question was to a larger British act that had as its goal “the protection of women and girls” by raising the age of consent and fighting forced marriage and coerced prostitution. Maybe the “modern mania for morality” Mrs. Cheveley mocks was not entirely without merit – even if it did go too far.

In the published script, Lord Goring ends the play by lecturing Lady Gertrude that “Women are not meant to judge us, but to forgive us when we need forgiveness. Pardon, not punishment, is their mission.” Here, Wade skips the first line and changes the latter to a gender-neutral one: “Pardon, not punishment, is our mission.”

Then, intriguingly, she follows it with a final tableau that suggests the problems with that forgiving philosophy. We see Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude reconciled, reunited, but still unsettled – a picture of forgiveness, but not forgetting, and more challenges ahead.

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An Ideal Husband runs until Oct. 28 (stratfordfestival.ca).