The Judas Kiss
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin ***
IT’S TEMPTING to believe that Oscar Wilde lived his entire life as a performance, from his earliest public witticisms (“I’m finding it harder and harder to live up to my blue china”) to his misquoted dying words (“Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”). That perception also makes it difficult to concoct a play about Oscar Wilde without it secretly hoping to become an Oscar Wilde play, where dialogue must defer to sparkling epigrams, and plot is rarely more than an afterthought.
David Hare’s 1998 drama opens in much more urgent and serious circumstances than any Wildean comedy would tolerate. The writer’s libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury, his lover’s father, has collapsed under salacious details. Retreating to a room in London’s Cadogan Hotel before he can be arrested for “gross indecency”, Wilde is urged by his compassionate friend Robbie Ross to leave for Paris, while his monstrously capricious lover Bosie implores him to stay.
Instead, a stunned, and brittle Wilde drinks, dines and disputes, and although his wit has darkened, it keeps flashing. In part, director Neil Armfield’s production for the Hampstead Theatre sees this paralysis as the fated last moments before martyrdom, where Wilde will be sacrificed for his sexuality, but there is also a sense that he is taking refuge in fantasy: “Open that door and the real world comes into this room.” Hare’s play also seems stranded somewhere between those worlds.
There are fascinating resonances to casting Rupert Everett as Wilde, an actor who has never been shy about his sexuality in a widely closeted film industry. Everett’s performance comes without vanity or self-regard – his Wilde is a corpulent, acutely sensitive creature prone to self-sabotage. But his aloof delivery, telegraphing witticisms whether witty or not, becomes more one-note, when he is confined to a chair in Naples in the second act, following his term in Reading Gaol, and Freddie Fox’s toxic fop, Bosie, compensates with almost pirouetting motion.
There’s an uninspiring symmetry about Hare’s play, which Dale Ferguson emulates in design, where a London dripping with burgundy velvet and satin cedes to a Naples of gossamer white, while a repeated sequence has a divine light searching through both spaces with the “transit of the sun”. That also makes the moral quandary seem schematic. Wilde, under Bosie’s admonishments, sacrifices everything for love, while Bosie finally denies his true nature for security. Such inversions seems artificially neat, but when Wilde, ever the aesthete, even redrafts the bible – Christ should not have been betrayed by the stranger Judas, he insists, but by John, whom he loved most – such parallels give Wilde’s fall a satisfying shape. Against the chaos of Wilde’s real world, rumbling just outside the door, that makes for a less satisfying experience.