It’s probably a tribute to Oscar Wilde to note that the story of his persecution is not even more relevant than it is, this century-and-a-bit later. Apparently reckless in his homosexual self-outing, he knew exactly what he was doing. Though he might hate the mere notion of having an agenda, his purpose was nothing less than the exposure of the mighty hypocrisies running through late Victorian respectability.
Rupert Everett is no less sure of his own intentions in playing the succulent part of Wilde in this revival of David Hare’s 1998 play The Judas Kiss. In fact he is so properly fashioned for the part by physical appearance, intellectual disposition and personal orientation that there are times during this highly engaging production when it would be easy to forget that you are watching an impersonation.
In a fabulously comic and decadent opening with classical use of light and dark in immaculate scenery that plays through cleverly to the second half, we are at first in a sumptuous room at the Cadogan Hotel, scene of Wilde’s famous arrest. His libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury, father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie”, has collapsed. He now faces almost certain conviction and imprisonment on charges of sodomy. The very word lands with an uneasy thud in the proceedings.
Why doesn’t he flee while he has time? It looks as though an embarrassed establishment is offering him the chance for a moonlight flit, yet here he stays, playing the flaneur with suicidal commitment, reflecting and, yes, moralising with all the old crackling and uncompromising wit. For one who had made such a living, such a reputation, through the inventiveness of his plotting and dialogue, he was not about to deliver a predictable denouement to the unfolding drama of his own life.
It is this riddlesome aspect of the man – heroic, insouciant, passionate, narcissistic, fiercely bright and far kinder than is often realised – that Everett nails with such accuracy.
Hare asks a lot of his Wilde, and Wilde for his part would have expected nothing less. Nor, it seems, does Everett, who shows us his subject’s indomitable morale gradually flagging against imprisonment, exile, penury and impending death. It could have become a mere vehicle, and a potentially stationary one, given the dependence of the piece’s second act on Wilde’s ripostes and one-liners and his laconic descent into the role of a sit-down comic. What emerges is a classy, philosophical amalgam of Kenneth Williams and Woody Allen, perpetually defeated, always victorious. “The everyday world is shrouded, “ he reflects with a distant gaze. “We see it dimly. Only when we love do we see the true person… Love is not the illusion. Life is.”
Hare has been accused of basing his dramas on themes rather than people, with the result a kind of bloodlessness. No such charge can be levelled here, although the Wilde character is not single-handedly responsible for this. Director Neil Armfield draws some rounded supporting performances from Freddie Fox as the fatally beautiful Bosie and Cal MacAninch as the martyred playwright’s less showy and more solid devotee Robert Ross. This is an evening as refreshing and surprising as Wilde’s own genius.
Thursday 24th January 2013