If you’re game for a Wilde night out, there’s a very special treat in store at the Hampstead theatre. Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox take on the roles of Oscar Wilde and his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas AKA Bosie (also the Judas of the play’s title) in this powerful and highly entertaining revival of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss.
The first act is set in a London hotel room on the day of the collapse of Wilde’s disastrous libel case against Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury (he of Queensbury Rules fame). We meet Wilde as he arrives at the hotel, ready to be arrested on the grounds of “gross indecency” for his relationships with men. Act two finds Wilde and Bosie in Naples, exploring the pair’s ill-advised reunion-in-exile after Wilde’s two years of hard labour. The dramatic change in Wilde’s health, outlook and financial situation is overwhelmingly sad and perfectly pitched.
Everett, almost unrecognisable under make-up and added bulk, gives a hypnotic, absorbing performance as Wilde. The audience root for him all the way (often vocally). He intricately conveys wisdom, kindness, love and misery, his killer delivery of Wilde’s razor-sharp witticisms is never contrived and always hilarious. There’s a lot of laughter to be found among the sorrow.
Bosie was not, by all accounts, the most likeable man in British History, indeed in most accounts he comes across as a selfish, amoral pipsqueak. A lesser actor might be tempted to caricature this, or to create a bawling monster, but Freddie Fox does the role great justice. He imbues the young Lord with a louche, cat-like narcissism, and we understand -and believe-every egotistical, calamitous decision he takes. There isn’t a weak link in the whole company, with standout turns from Cal Macaninch as Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie and Alister Cameron as soft-spoken Scots servant Mr. Moffatt. There’s a moment in Act One between Wilde and the servants that simply rips the heart asunder. I won’t ruin it here, but it’s a hell of a tear-jerker.
Rick Fisher’s evocative lighting design is beautiful, emphasising the hotel room as Wilde’s last oasis from the vindictive incursion of a corrupt society. Shafts of light intrude from the window, penetrating the dusty gloom of the darkness and playing on crushed velvet furnishings. Shadows loom large: ominous and stunning. Characters and sets melt away before the eyes as subtle changes in light mark the passage of time. At the tragic close of the play, after the bereft, immobile figure of Oscar Wilde fades into the darkness, I found Everett’s final facial expression almost permanently burnt onto the back of my retina.
In an interview in the programme, David Hare points out how relevant the play, and the tragedy of Wilde, remains today: “One teenage suicide in five is still about sexuality…look at lives of gay men and women outside metropolitan centres in the West, or indeed outside the West altogether.” After watching The Judas Kiss it is hard not to ruminate on how much talent and genius is daily smashed across the globe by scandal, hypocrisy and that peculiar human obsession with the bedroom habits of others.