Oscar Wilde’s Big Secret, Ghastly ‘Don Giovanni’: London Stage

Rachael Stirling and Alexander Hanson in "An Ideal Husband" by Oscar Wilde. Photographer: Nobby Clark/Jo Allan PR via Bloomberg

There’s brittle-clever dialogue, an explosively guilty secret and swathes of gorgeous period frocks. Why then does a clammy hand of theatrical torpor hover over “An Ideal Husband” in London?

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play uses the kind of solid dramatic device beloved of Ibsen -- a terrible mistake in the past -- and mixes it with frothy aphorisms.

“I love London society. It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what society should be.” And the like.

It needs a cast who can delve beneath the characters’ carefully constructed verbal tricks to reveal the souls beneath the masks. Sometimes those in the Vaudeville Theatre production manage it. When they don’t, it feels like an ice bath of logorrhea.

When they do, things hot up. Alexander Hanson shows fear and vulnerability as Sir Robert Chiltern, the politician with a guilty secret, and Rachael Stirling is memorably dignified as the wife who believes him to be an ideal of morality. Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond film “Die Another Day”) is the clever blackmailer Mrs. Cheveley, who occasionally hints at the chinks in her armor.

The characters revolve around Lord Goring, a dandy with a line in witty paradoxes, and here the center fails to hold. Elliot Cowan supplies comic timing, and gives the impression he’s reading from an autocue. Then the clammy hand descends.

Matters aren’t helped by Lindsay Posner’s direction. A scene which should have an atmosphere of anxious secrecy is delivered at high volume in a public room. A character appears in a new costume when, according to the workings of the play, she shouldn’t have had time to change.

Rating: **.

Grisly Giovanni

Even less ideal is “Don Giovanni” at English National Opera. Artistic director John Berry has again hired a director with no operatic experience, and the results are predictably grisly.

Opera directing demands craft as well as inspiration. Keeping the dramatic focus clear during a complicated ensemble is tricky. Marrying heightened gesture with music, and creating a world where such gestures are believable, takes practice.

In Rufus Norris’s hands it’s all so dispiriting that it’s hard to know where to begin. Don Giovanni is played as brutal and charmless, which makes it hard to believe that any of the other characters might fall for him.

Zerlina refers to Giovanni with awe as “my lord” and as “a gentleman” (in a new translation by Jeremy Sams), even though this makes no sense in the contemporary setting.

It takes place in a grimy shanty town which only increases the dramatic incoherence: Why is the noble Donna Anna there? Gestures are confused: Donna Anna starts doing some Irish country dancing during the Act 2 sextet, for no good reason. Two arias are swapped around, betraying a crucial lack of faith in the material.

Kirill Karabits makes an inelegant mess in the pit. None of the singers shines, though with such odds stacked against them it hardly seems surprising.

Rating: (No stars).

Ghost Horror

I finally caught up with “Ghost Stories,” and am glad I did.

The show dramatizes three tales of the paranormal. A night watchman, guilty because he hasn’t visited his daughter in a coma, hears things that go bump in the night. A student without a driving license hits a woman in the dark. A busy banker fears for his unborn child.

The increasingly creepy atmosphere of each story is great, and this is its pulling power. In each case the denouement feels more schlock than horror, and this is what ultimately lets it down. There’s a silly “explanation” for everything at the end too, which the producers ask the audience not to reveal.

The acting is good, and the shadowy lighting of the three sets is excellent. Compared to the underwhelming hell flames of “Don Giovanni,” it seems like a masterpiece.

Rating: **.

“An Ideal Husband” is at the Vaudeville Theatre. http://www.nimaxtheatres.com or +44-844-412-4663

“‘Don Giovanni” is in repertoire at the Coliseum. http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200

“Ghost Stories” is at the Duke of York’s Theatre. http://www.ambassadortickets.com or +44-844-871-7627

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless
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