BBC Radio 7, 26 November 2010
Superficially speaking An Ideal Husband is a melodrama of unlikely coincidences and inevitable consequences, chance meetings and fateful conversations. Wilde satirizes the pretensions of the Victorian upper class and their obesssion with sustaining a facade of respectability. The play contains echoes of his later work - for example, party scenes where the characters say nothing and mean everything, and the endless use of epigrams that seem so clever yet sterile.
David Timson's production, first broadcast in 2007, focused not so much on the social satire but on the characters' futile efforts to control their fates and thereby determine their own lives. This was done by deliberately varying the pace of the dialogue and introducing significant pauses. Sir Robert Chiltern (Alex Jennings), the aspirant politician, proved a master of thetoric; his brilliant speech in the House of Commons helped to persuade MPs to reject a questionable Argentine venture. However Sir Robert's speech-making abilities proved inadequate to deal with the threat posed by Mrs. Cheveley (Janet McTeer) to his marriage; for the most part he sounded as if he was trying to use words to cover up his emotional inadequacies. Chiltern gradually came to understand such flaws in his character; as a result his speeches became more interspersed with long pauses, suggesting that he was at last beginning to reflect on what he was going to say before saying it.
The same process of self-discovery was also evident in Mrs. Cheveley, whose air of boundless self-confidence was shattered by the realization that Viscount Goring (Jasper Britton) knew all about her shady past - that she stole a bracelet from one of Goring's close relatives. Mrs. Cheveley's voice gradually faltered; and then she began to gabble her words in the mistaken belief that this would help to cover up her guilt.
Timson's clever use of pace and pauses emphasized the brittleness of Wilde's dialogue; despite the surface brilliance, it seems as if the characters are using wit as a means of covering up their inadequacies. If Viscount Goring didn't unleash epigram after epigram, he might suddenly understand the basic emptiness of his existence; this perhaps helps to explain why Britton delivered his lines breathlessly. McTeer's Cheveley understood how this dialogue works; although perfectly capable of delivering epigrams herself, she could also be brutally honest. Her voice snarled as she threatened the Chilterns with ruin, or talked of having purloined a supposed love-letter written by Lady Chiltern (Emma Fielding) to Viscount Goring.
Mrs. Cheveley's basic nastiness demonstrated what would happen if aristocrats like Goring or Sir Robert ever lost their speech-making abilities and allowed the silences to take over. She led an empty life, with no words to cover it up; all she could do was to exploit others. She might have seemed a strong character, as she tried to blackmail the Chilterns; in Timson's interpretation she came across as the weakest person, unable to take control of her life in any way. Even if Goring and the Chilterns only had limited control over their lives, at least they had some kind of hope for the future. Hence the happy ending, in which Goring married Sir Robert's sister Mabel (Joanna Page) and the Chilterns were reconciled. By contrast Mrs. Cheveley was left with nothing.
Timson's production was acutely aware of the power of radio to denote states of mind through silence as well as through dialogue. It proved a revelation in its determination to focus on what lies behind Wilde's verbal brilliance.