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La Boite Theatre gives us a rollicking, queer and very Australian adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

28 Jul 2022

La Boite/Morgan Roberts

Review: An Ideal Husband, directed by Bridget Boyle

An Ideal Husband was first performed in January 1895. Less than two months later Lord Queenberry left his infamous card accusing Wilde of “posing as a sodomite”, which led to Wilde suing for criminal libel – and then being arrested and imprisoned.

The play was written while Wilde was besotted with Queensberry’s son, Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) and the very title is ironic: Wilde, it turned out, was far from “the ideal husband”.

It is a complex play, an odd mixture of sentimentality and satire, without the consistency of the far more polished The Importance of Being Earnest. The ending veers on the saccharine, when Lady Chiltern proclaims she feels “love, and only love” for her ideal husband. But as Wilde observed in The Importance of Being Earnest:

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

Now, La Boite Theatre is staging a remarkably free adaptation of An Ideal Husband.

Sparkling dialogue, overwritten

La Boite will celebrate its centenary in 2025, as Australia’s oldest continuous theatre company. Its 400-seat roundhouse theatre located in Brisbane is a far cry from the classic stage of the Haymarket where Wilde’s play was first staged.

Playwright Lewis Treston and director Bridget Boyle have taken advantage of this to re-imagine the play as a contemporary Australian political farce, reducing the connections to the original.

“Allow me to tell you the truth about Mr Wilde,” writes Treston in the program. “His characters are poorly developed, his plots are clumsy, and his sparkling dialogue is overwritten.”

Sadly one might say the same of this version. Unfortunately, Treston has expanded the farcical elements of Wilde’s melodrama without sufficient of Wilde’s irony.

This is a contemporary Australian political farce. La Boite/Morgan Roberts

That said, La Boite’s play is enormously entertaining, particularly when it takes off in the second half as what can best be described as a sexy, gay pantomime. Treston has retained the basic themes of Wilde’s play in making it about political corruption and the struggle to maintain relationships, although here the key relationships are homosexual.

“The ideal husband”, observes this Mabel (Billy Fogarty), “is a male homosexual”. The crucial relationship is between the Labor Minister, Robyn (Hsiao-Ling Tang), and her girlfriend Gertrude (Emily Burton). They play out the tension in Wilde’s drama between pragmatism and principles, centred on the threat from a mining developer that might disrupt the habitat of an endangered species of lizards.

One of the funniest moments in the play is the reference back to Robyn’s career as school captain: “you can be good or you can be effective”. Echoes here, perhaps, of the TV series The Politician (2019-20).

Read more: Oscar Wilde would have been on Grindr – but he preferred a more clandestine connection

A contemporary farce

Christen O’Leary is not afraid to ham shamelessly. La Boite/Morgan Roberts

Treston’s play is set in 1996, a fact drummed into us by the Howard-like muppets who appear every now and then to move around the minimal setting. But the political references move between the 1960s and the present, thanks to pantomime dame Christen O’Leary, who has several big scenes as Dame Tara Markby, clearly modelled on Zara Holt.

I struggled to understand Markby’s relevance to this version of the story, but when O'Leary reappears as mining magnate Tina Topaz she has one of the most cutting lines in the play. O’Leary is not afraid to ham shamelessly, an appropriate style for what becomes increasingly a contemporary farce.

Wilde was restrained in his references to contemporary politics, but there is no such reticence here. The political father, Lord Caversham, and his feckless son, Viscount Goring, become a bogan Queensland MP, John Whig (Kevin Hides), and his gay son whom everyone lusts after (Will Carseldine, delightfully cast).

“Whig” seems an odd choice of name for someone who seems based on Bob Katter, and one of the weaknesses of the play is the crudeness of the political references. A more ironic take on Australian politics would be dramatically more persuasive; several times I cringed at lines that were obvious cliches.

In this very Australian satire, John Whig is clearly based on Bob Katter. La Boite/Morgan Roberts

A rollicking show

Wilde’s play has a number of ironic lines which are largely lost. Oddly, the most familiar Wildism in the show is one taken from The Importance of Being Earnest rather than An Ideal Husband. And the characters are too prone to grab at alcohol whenever a crisis arrives.

But the various strands of a very messy plot come together in a rollicking last hour, and I left La Boite energised and entertained. The actors are uniformly energetic and work well as an ensemble.

There is a particular pleasure in seeing this play in the aftermath of the recent federal elections, when central Brisbane swung to the Greens and broke the southern prejudices about Queensland politics.

Despite the farcical elements, An Ideal Husband reminds us of the struggles between expediency and necessity which confront the new Albanese government.

An Ideal Husband is at La Boite Theatre until August 6.

Read more: We taught an AI to impersonate Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde – here's what it revealed about sentience

Dennis Altman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read the full article here.
This content was originally published by The Conversation. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By The Conversation

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