JOHN Waters is about to become the Australian epitome of An Ideal Husband. The versatile performer will celebrate the new year by starring as the title character in the Oscar Wilde comedy of the same name, backed by a stunning international cast.
Directed by Sir Peter Hall, An Ideal Husband is set against a colourful backdrop of political manoeuvring, blackmail and treason.
Co-starring Stephanie Beacham (Dynasty), Josephine Byrnes, Penny Cook, Googie Withers and John McCallum, and British actor Nicky Henson, the play marks a return to mainstream theatre for Waters.
"It's a wonderful play and a fantastic part in a prestigious production," he said, taking a quick break during the exhausting rehearsal period in Sydney. We're approaching the play in a fresh way and (the cast) has been pretty marvellous. They all want to be members of this company and not rehash their old performances but I can still pick up tips from them."
Waters plays Sir Robert Chiltern, the "husband" of the title, a very ambitious man who is honest and forthright but is about to be confronted by a blackmailer. Mrs Cheveley (Beacham) accuses him of building his career on dishonour by selling a Cabinet secret, but she's not doing it out of community spirit.
The role is a brilliant step for Waters, who has avoided being stereotyped during a career lasting almost 30 years.
Born in London in 1948, he began his career as a singer and bass player with The Riots before moving to Australia and landing the role of Claude in the 1969 production of Hair. Since then he has performed on stage and screen in such memorable shows as Rush, Breaker Morant, All The Rivers Run, My Fair Lady, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, The Sullivans and the highly successful one-man production Looking Through A Glass Onion.
Versatility is important to Waters, who joined rehearsals for An Ideal Husband after finishing a music tour as part of a band.
"It's important to me to stay working as much as possible and to stretch my abilities as much as possible," he said. "This (An Ideal Husband) is so radically different to anything I've done and that keeps me on my toes. I'm constantly changing and that's deliberate."
After the short season of An Ideal Husband, Waters will return to touring, presenting a concert of songs covering the past 30 years. Beyond that, he's open to all possibilities.
An Ideal Husband opens at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, on January 6 and runs until January 31.
Waters is just Wilde about an Ideal role. By: Mary Nemeth. 29th November 1997. Australian Financial Review
For almost 30 years English-born John Waters has been entertaining Australians - from his first role as Claude in the rock musical Hair in Sydney in 1969 to his current touring stage show, From Hair to Here - songs and scripted anecdotes from the rock band/stage musical portion of his career. With films like Breaker Morant and Boulevard of Broken Dreams, TV series including Rush and stage roles from My Fair Lady in London to his acclaimed show about John Lennon, Looking Through a Glass Onion, behind him, Waters is taking on something quite different - an Oscar Wilde play.
English director Sir Peter Hall arrives in Australia for the first time this month to direct a new Australian and English cast in his hugely popular London production of Wilde's An Ideal Husband, now playing in London again after a successful 12-month season on Broadway.
Waters plays Sir Robert Chiltern, the satirically titled 'ideal husband' of the play who, as the British Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, makes one mistake early in his political career and is later blackmailed for it. The rest of his career has been good works, but, Waters says, 'in the eyes of his morally upright wife that counts for nothing, because he started with a lie'.
Josephine Byrnes plays Lady Chiltern, with fellow Australians Penny Cook, John McCallum and Googie Withers also in principal roles. English actor Stephanie Beacham re-creates her Broadway role as the blackmailing Mrs Cheveley and Britain's Nicky Hensen plays Lord Goring, a key character whose role the early critics failed to understand, according to Wilde.
'Wilde's political and social satire is devastating, brave and uncompromising,' Waters says. 'He tears apart the idle rich and so on. But there's also a kind of amusement and affection for them in the writing, and I think that's why it works so well.' The tragic aftermath to this was that the day after An Ideal Husband closed in 1896, Wilde's famous arrest took place, ending in his two-year jail term for homosexuality and his early death - in poverty and despair - in Paris in 1900.
An Ideal Husband, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, December 6-21. The Sydney season at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, opens on January 3. The Melbourne season at Her Majesty's opens on February 5.
Eternal relevance in Wilde's swan-song text THE AUSTRALIAN. 10th December 1997. By: Veronica Kelly
An Ideal Husband
By Oscar Wilde. Director: Peter Hall. Design: Carl Toms. Lighting design: Donn Byrnes. With Stephanie Beacham, Josephine Byrnes, Penny Cook, Nicky Henson, John McCallum, John Waters and Googie Withers. The Peter Hall Company at the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane.
There is subtextual poignancy galore in Peter Hall's spirited production of this comedy-melodrama, which in 1895 ran to great acclaim until the criminal trials that destroyed its author caused its abrupt withdrawal. The challenge facing contemporary revivals is not to mount a case for Wilde's originality in renovating the up-market dramatic conventions of his day but more to prevent his artifice from being swamped with portentous hindsight.
The script is a generic and confessional highwire act whose author risks falling amid dazzling feints and side leaps. Just as Wilde negotiated the sexual and class chasms of his milieu, An Ideal Husband dodges about between the formal and ethical demands of melodrama, high comedy and society drama.
While Wilde's plays were seeded with cheeky gay in-jokes for the 90s cognoscenti, horror at the savage punishment immediately hanging over its author invites today our complicit decoding.
Dark secrets shadow the comedy and emerge in breathtaking moments of danger. When John Waters's Sir Robert Chiltern carefully plays out his lines justifying prohibition of marriage to the gay bachelor, the play's unspeakable knowledge seems finally on the point of enunciation. Pin-dropping stuff.
And the plot, juggling scenes of blackmail, disgrace and press vilification, marital secrets, the infuriating puzzle of a woman's love and the tricky fit between private and political virtue, flaunts its author's predicament as though pleading for compassion before an implacable jury no longer to be appeased with mere witticisms.
It looks like a typical West End comedy, with the functional sets of a modest actor-centred show that didn't realise it was going to become a worldwide success in much larger venues.
The convention where the adventurer gets the best gowns rather puts the virtuous ladies' sensible cream concoctions in the shade.
Stephanie Beacham, in a series of plunging stunners in heliotrope and poison green, plays the blackmailing speculator Mrs Cheveley with style and relish. Elegant and professional, this insider-trader understandably finds it reasonable that dodgy pollies should repay financial favours upon demand and in kind.
Her mark is Waters's decently starchy Chiltern, retaining our sympathy although really he should be fed to the CJC without pity. Josephine Byrnes as his idealistic wife humanises the rigid puritan with warm emotions.
Casting coup of the night, however, has to be the seasoned duo of Googie Withers and John McCallum. When it comes to high comedy with a light, sure touch, these veterans are a hard act to beat. McCallum's artful snorts and dithering are a lesson in how players can extend and personalise their roles.
Pivotal responsibility in a cryptobiographical reading naturally falls to Nicky Henson's Oscar-padded Lord Goring, the "eligible bachelor" who tries to sort out his friends' lives while protecting his own. Henson is a farceur who can prance light-footedly and play the licensed clown when required.
I initially found Goring's capering selfdeprecation difficult to fathom, but that's perhaps the point. As Henson maps his way through the part with intelligent strategy, his moral authority grows. No stentorian voice of society with all the conventional answers, this Goring knows himself as a masked outlaw surviving through effrontery and sheer luck, whose interventions and pleas for charity come from painful knowledge.
Henson delivers the twaddle speech about a man's life being more important than a woman's as it deserves -with shamed throwaway confusion. Then, alas, the implacable plot machine mercilessly closes in on Goring as he's corralled into a mariage blanc with Penny Cook's chipper and eternally grinning Mabel Chiltern, who appears to inhabit another dramatic world.
This warm-hearted and intelligent production displays top-line performers inhabiting Wilde's swan-song text with the respect and depth it requires. Yes, it's brilliant, polished, witty, eternally politically relevant and all those great Wilde things, but Hall's empathetic treatment makes this Ideal Husband not merely a West End-style dazzler but an authoritative reading with the power to disclose gradually its troubled emotional dynamics.