The UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) continues its 2011-12 season with a production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a play which asks important questions about the nature of trust in our politicians and forgiveness of their faults at a time when these questions are very much at the forefront of public discourse. That timeliness is one of the key reasons Director Christine Nicholson and TDPS elected to present this production.
“The show is extremely relevant to our current reality,” Nicholson, fresh from the successful run of The Taming of the Shrew at the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival, explains. “In recent years, we’ve had a slew of political troubles. Two recessions, a near-default on the debt, an insane bank bailout, and more revealed marital infidelities than we can count. As we head into another year of negative political campaigning, what are we to do with all this damning information? That question is what’s at the heart of this play.”
Moral failings are at the center of the action in An Ideal Husband, and whether those secrets are protected or divulged become currency in the interactions between characters. The play follows Sir Robert Chiltern, a rising political star with a good heart – and a soft spot for money and power. When his past comes back to haunt him in the form of a woman with information on an unethical business dealing, it quickly becomes a race between his friends and enemies to see who can blackmail whom to keep it quiet.
Key themes in the play are whether ends justify means in keeping a good, but flawed, politician in power, and whether that politician is indeed as good as everyone thinks he is. “Should we hold our politicians up to a higher moral code and remove them when they fail to live up to those standards?” Nicholson asks. “Or do we forgive them for their failings, move on and trust that they can do better? Either direction has its problems. If we do forgive them, where do we draw the line about what’s a truly unforgivable offense?”
One of the key ways the plays gets at its central theme is through its women, a point which offers its own interest for Nicholson. “Being a politician’s wife is a tough job,” she explains. “She so often becomes just a pink cardigan suit that stands near the politician, quietly disappearing or being disposed of after she is needed. This is an interesting chance to explore the world they live in. To look at how these women think about their spouses, and what they stand to lose or gain from the power their spouses achieve.”
Of course Wilde’s incisive 19th-century language presents a challenge, which makes it ideal for performance by TDPS students. “Wilde’s work has great training value. The language is as evocative as Shakespeare’s, but without the dense verse,” Nicholson says. “It has a largeness, an import. That kind of rhetoric has become perceived as for the elite only, but it is really very populist. We recognize that great use of language when we see Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. They gave Aaron Sorkin an Oscar for it. It’s writing like Wilde’s that deserves to be performed, and seen.”
An Ideal Husband opens on Friday, November 11th at the Durham Studio Theater on the UC Berkeley campus and runs weekends through Sunday, November 20th. Performance times are as follows: November 11, 12, 18, 19 8pm; November 13, 20 at 2pm.
TICKETS: $15.00 – General Admission, $10.00 – Students/Seniors, UC Faculty/Staff. Group discounts for ten or more, $7.00 – Students/Seniors, $10.00 – General Admission.