Rupert Everett is amazing as Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss, with the veteran actor’s enthusiasm for all things Wildean seeping into the very fabric of David Hare’s examination of the Irish writer’s tragedy (or folly, depending on how sympathetic you are). Ably supported by fantastic ensemble, lavish set design and solid direction, The Judas Kiss is a rare theatrical pleasure. David Hare’s script manages to entertain and engage without ever seeming to pander, or without ever seeming too forced or obvious, and Everett provides a stunning portrait of a man struggling with his own ideas of fate and determinism.
Wilde is a fascinating historical character. He is, after all, a writer whose works suggest a wit and intelligence that makes his ultimate downfall all the more difficult to explain. Wilde’s unique insight into class and culture, with his barbs couched in the most sophisticated and intelligent terms, would indicate that he must have known that he could never have won his case. The Judas Kiss features two acts, exploring two pivotal moments in Wilde’s life. The first act is set in Wilde’s hotel room before the police arrive to arrest him, and the second unfolds years later during his exile in Europe.
During the first act, Wilde contemplates his future inside a small hotel room, in the presence of his friends Robbie Ross and Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Of course, we all know the decision that Wilde will make. We know that he will decide, against all logic, to stay and to fight the claims being made against him. The outlook could not have been hopeful, and his decision to remain in England is hard to explain.
The strength of Hare’s script, and Everett’s superb central performance, is the care that it takes in explaining how Wilde reached that decision. Of course, the script makes it clear that Bosie is using Wilde to strike back at his father, the Marquis of Queensbury, but it’s also quite clear that Wilde is aware of this. Discussing the situation with Robbie, Wilde knows that his decision is irrational and illogical, and that he can’t justify what he feels for Bosie. He recognises the inevitable trajectory, but he can’t stray from it.
Both Bosie and Robbie recognise this fatalism in Wilde’s character, this romantic idea that his destiny is set in stone and that he is simply going through the motions, an actor unable to change the play in which he finds himself cast. Hare manages to make Wilde seem genuinely tragic by acknowledging this flaw, and coupling it with a sense of naivety. Wilde is stubborn and manipulative, but he’s also portrayed as downright childish.
Even when it comes to the money that Robbie has provided for his exile, he can’t bring himself to horde and save it. He’s more concerned with getting a good lunch than with discussing the matter at hand, and refuses to let Bosie’s cousin in because his dourness offends him – despite the fact he has vital news from London. Wilde occasionally seems like a spoilt brat, but it’s to Everett’s credit that we never completely dismiss or condemn him. Despite his cynicism and his temper, Wilde is sympathetic and sincere.
Hare’s script is, in place, genuinely touching. He clearly has a great deal of affection for Wilde, and some of the best moments of the play acknowledge the humanity of Wilde and those around him – in particular, the support of the hotel staff is incredibly emotionally affective, as they argue that Wilde is one of the few true “gentlemen” to stay at their establishment, regardless of what the media or that law might say about his habits or proclivities.
It’s Everett who anchors the play with a stellar leading performance, but he’s supported by a fine cast. Freddie Fox makes for a delightfully despicable Bosie, the handsome little boy who is exploiting the older and more innocent Wilde in order to provoke a response from his father. While Hare makes Bosie’s motivations clear, and allows him to make some convincing arguments, the play is pretty explicit in condemning the young aristocrat for his selfishness and folly. Cal MacAninch offers a sympathetic, if ineffective, Robbie Ross, one of the few of Wilde’s true friends to stand by him as long as possible.
Being honest, The Judas Kiss is just a character-driven play. The production design is efficient without being intrusive, the sound mixing is effective and the lighting conveys the passage of time remarkably well. However, it’s the actors who do the bulk of the work carrying the play, with the show itself consisting of two rather long scenes anchored around Wilde and his supporting cast. It hangs together almost perfectly, thanks to the skill of the cast and the beauty of Hare’s script.
The Judas Kiss is a genuine treat, something very worth seeing. It’s an interesting exploration of a touching tragedy featuring one of the most important Irish literary figures of the nineteenth century, and a highlight of the theatrical year.