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The reviews of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s An Ideal Husband haven’t exactly been glowing. The Washington Post‘s Peter Marks called the play a “noteworthy relic,” chalking up the production’s shortcomings to the fact that the play happens to be second-rate Oscar Wilde. The play’s lengthy first act apparently sent City Paper‘s Trey Graham into a yawning fit: He described its opening scene as “the dullest party ever hosted.”
It’s a bit slow, then, and the ending perhaps a tad ripe (at least according to Graham). But both critics—-and this editor—-also agreed about one other aspect of An Ideal Husband: It’s damn gorgeous.
Of course, any Victorian comedy of manners should be so handsome. Kudos to the costumes, but what struck me at a performance last week was the set’s moody grandeur. The play’s main setting, a handsome London manor, has thick, black marble columns and a sweeping, ring-shaped staircase whose back rises vertiginously over a spacious atrium. It’s stunning but also unsettling, shading the characters’ early small talk with dungeon-like tones.
That fits well with the play’s plot, in which a politician well-positioned for Great Things must contend with his shady past. But it’s also a turnaround from how An Ideal Husband is usually designed. Simon Higlett, An Ideal Husband‘s set designer, thinks he’s worked on the play twice before (“I have this superstitution of never adding up the shows I’ve done and never remembering the shows I’ve done because one day there may not be any more,” he says), but in the past he took a more traditional approach, with manor halls that were just as opulent as the current staging’s, but a lot less gentleman-villain.
“I just wanted to reverse it and make it work,” he says. “It is based on a real house in England, in London.” That house had white columns, though. When Higlett, who is English, was in town last year to design Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Shakespeare Theatre Company, he was inspired by black marble columns in the National Gallery of Art. For An Ideal Husband, the play’s director Keith Baxter invented a phrase to be inscribed into the stairs’ back: “Life, Joy and Empire.” When Higlett saw the National Gallery’s columns, he says, he thought, “‘Well, these columns say empire to me, and strength and solidity.'”
For An Ideal Husband‘s other set, the apartment of the foppish Lord Goring, Higlett pulled the opposite trick. “In the past I’ve always done them, and I’ve always seen them done, as a very dark space, like a gentleman’s club…not seedy, but dark and slightly womblike. So my idea was we could reverse this idea and do it light and bright, in the Mackintosh style.”
That’d be Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the early 20th century Scottish architect. “What I loved about the Mackintosh stuff was it was very avant-garde for its time, and it seemed to suit Goring very well,” he says. “At the time it was seen as very effete and effeminate.”
An Ideal Husband‘s set has another innovation. Wilde’s original stage directions called for the inclusion of François Boucher‘s tapestry “The Triumph of Love,” but Higlett decided to swap it out for William Bouguereau‘s painting “The Abduction of Psyche.” Psyche, from the Greek myth, was a good fit: The legend involves a woman whose beauty is too great for flawed mortal men, a loose parallel to the moral and beautiful wife of a politician in An Ideal Husband.
Plus, tapestries of kind of a pain. “When you look up that tapestry, ‘The Triumph of Love,’ it’s actually not very nice,” Higlett says. “Tapestries don’t ever work on stage particularly well, because they’re, well, tweedy, for lack of a better word. They’re not the most elegant of things.”