Following its brief run at Hampstead Theatre last autumn, David Hare’s 1998 play The Judas Kiss has now successfully transferred to London’s West End with Rupert Everett repeating his magnificent interpretation of the literary genius Oscar Wilde and the young Freddie Fox as the object of his obsession, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie).
The Judas Kiss is thankfully not loaded with pseudo Wilde wittycisms. Tempered and intelligent, it delves into a more private side of this great man of words. The play focuses on two decisive, and not unrelated, episodes in Wilde’s life. The first act is set in the Cadogan Hotel - the setting for a period of “the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde, facing imminent arrest for gross indecency, is offered a “gentlemanly” get-out clause and a few hours grace to enable him to disappear to the Continent, thereby avoiding scandal and embarrassment on all sides. Disregarding these hypocritical rules of the English establishment, Wilde chooses, almost willfully, to face his fate and refuses to flee. “Everyone wants me to go abroad” he bemoans, “I have just been abroad. And now I have come home again.”
Having served his term of imprisonment and reunited with Bosie in penurious exile in Naples, Wilde is depicted as world-weary and lethargic in the second act. He does not move from his chair whilst Bosie flaunts both his willy and his latest Italian interest, Galileo. Even an ultimatum from his wife Constance is not enough to move this titan from his state of inertia. Wilde seems to be a passive player in his greatest drama - his own life.
Why he refused to leave England and thereby avoid jail, and why he subsequently returned to the ultimately destructive Bosie, are questions posed repeatedly by Hare via Wilde’s friend and former lover Robert (Robbie) Ross, played here admirably by Cal MacAninch. No answers are offered other than the suggestion that “If I run now my story is finished.” There is to be no happy ending to this tale of compulsive love.
The portrayal of Bosie does not make it easy to understand Wilde’s decision. Petulant, self-indulgent, spoiled and arrogant, Fox both plays - and looks - the part to perfection. His youthful looks and demeanor are in direct contrast with those of his older lover. Demonstrating a remarkable lack of empathy, Bosie reminds Wilde that he too has suffered. A fascination can perhaps be understood, but love? However, as Hare has Wilde poignantly pronounce, “Who are we to judge?”
Holding the narrative together is the tour-de-force performance of Rupert Everett. His portrayal of an older, sadder Wilde is touching and seemingly genuine (or maybe just excellent acting?). David Hare has remarked that “there's a sort of line where you can't tell where Wilde ends and Rupert begins.” As an author of considerable prose himself, Everett knows how both to write and to deliver words. He gives us a dignified, tragic and somewhat flawed Oscar Wilde rather than the hackneyed caricature we have become accustomed to. Director Neil Armfield undoubtedly played a major part in this, but it is Everett who ultimately delivers brilliantly.