by Lynn on March 31, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by David Hare,
Directed by Neil Armfield
Set by Dale Ferguson
Costumes by Sue Blane
Lighting by Rick Fisher
Sound by Paul Groothuis
Composer, Alan John
Cast: Elliot Balchin
Alister Cameron
Tom Colley
Rupert Everett
Jessie Hills
Cal MacAninch
Charlie Rowe

The Judas Kiss is a maddening play that comes close to making Oscar Wilde seem like a human being and not just a font of witticism in Act I and then goes off the rails in Act II when all he seems to do is drop aphorisms. Surely Oscar Wilde was deeper than this considering the difficulties he had in his life.

Background. Oscar Wilde, the celebrated Irish playwright and wit, had a romantic relationship with the young Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie to his friends). Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury was enraged by this and the embarrassment it brought to the family, and accused Wilde of being a ‘sodomite’. He actually spelled it “somdomite” on a card he left at Wilde’s club. The Marquess was an expert in boxing not spelling. Wilde sued for libel. The case collapsed because the Marquess had witnesses and proof. The play picks up from there.

The Story. Act I takes place in 1895 in London, in the Cadogan Hotel, just after the libel trial. Wilde, Bosie and Robert Ross, a friend and former lover of Wilde’s meet in a hotel room to plan what to do. Robert Ross urges Wilde to leave the country to avoid prosecution and jail. Bosie wants him to stay and fight, if only to get back at the Marquess. Bosie promises to stay with Wilde but then backtracks when he’s first advised not to be found in the hotel room with Wilde when the police come to arrest him. And then Bosie is further urged to leave the country—and not with Wilde–to avoid further scandal. The dilemma for Wilde is, what does he do?

Act II is set in 1897 in Naples, Italy. Wilde has been released from prison after two years of hard labour. Bosie has invited him to Naples. Why is the mystery. Wilde seems to spend his time there reading and enjoying the sunshine, while Bosie picks up many and various men to take home with him. At the moment it’s a fisherman named Galileo. It’s obvious the relationship between Wilde and Bosie is rough. There are accusations of who was the better friend. They quarrel. It ends badly.

The Production. Dale Ferguson has designed a room at the Cadogan Hotel for Act I that is dark, perhaps to suggest the secrecy that is going on there. The furniture is dark wood or leather. The bedspread is black. There is dark billowing material over the bed. It is at once lush and rich but also a bit oppressive. For Act II in Naples there is a sense of lightness and sun. Rick Fisher’s lighting accentuates shadows in Act I and the light of Naples in Act II. Sue Blanes’ costumes are impeccable for Wilde and Ross who are both gentlemen and not flashy. Bosie dresses in the latest flashy styles.

The Judas Kiss seems like two separate plays divided by an intermission. In Act I we get the sense of urgency for Wilde, Bosie and Ross with Neil Armfield’s direction. The police are coming. Robert Ross has brought two packed bags for Wilde to take with him when he leaves for the train station. Cal MacAninch as Ross is breathless as he enters the room with two packed bags for Wilde’s escape. Ross is a gentleman so keeps his cool in that composed British way, but there is an edge. He is playing with a loose cannon in Bosie. Bosie as performed by Charlie Rowe is a spoiled, petulant, selfish, self-centred brat who just wants to get back at his father and he’s using Wilde to help him in his plan. Rowe plays him with all seriousness and not a shred of irony when Bosie says that in fact he has suffered more than Wilde has and that he has more to lose.

Matters go into high gear when Wilde enters, shattered after his terrible day in court, and falls into Bosie’s embrace. The embrace is tight and desperate. What is Wilde to do in such a fraught time? He orders lunch. Rupert Everett is an imposing presence as Wilde. He’s impeccably dressed. His delivery is quick and crisp. Playwright David Hare’s dialogue is so subtle in establishing the dilemma facing Wilde. If he leaves he’s a coward. If he stays he could be arrested. Wilde needs to see Bosie to make up his mind, but Bosie has his own agenda. It’s such intricate playwriting in that first Act and while we know what happened from history, how Hare creates this dilemma and the thinking of the characters involved, is masterful. The problem of course is that Wilde is in terrible danger if he stays. Wilde has to decide what to do about leaving or not.

You do get the sense of Wilde’s dilemma in Rupert Everett’s performance. But I couldn’t help get the sense it’s so much posing. Almost every point or witty remark Everett delivers is done quickly followed by a sharp intake of air sucked in through his teeth as he grimaces. I found it so mannered.

In Act II, in Naples, Wilde is relegated to observer as Bosie lounges in bed with yet another man he’s picked up in his travels. In these cases it all seems like aphorisms and witty remarks, which has less to do with character and more to do with showing off. I wonder where that character from Act I went? Well he went to jail for two years so perhaps he left his character there.

In these cases, Everett gives his lines as quickly as possible without giving the sense that he’s actually listening to the person he’s talking too. (Talking at?), All very disconcerting.

Comment. The following poem by W.H. Auden is on the back of the playtext for The Judas Kiss: “If equal affections cannot be/Let the more loving one be me.” The note on the back of the text continues with the poem: “expresses the dilemma at the heart of David Hare’s …exploration of Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. The author speculates on two incidents in Wilde’s life of which we know little, in order to present a play whose true subject is not Wilde, but love; not Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), but betrayal.”

That Wilde loved Bosie to dangerous distraction is not in question. He went to jail for him. That Bosie did not return the affection is clear too. He sacrificed Wilde, betrayed him, as Judas betrayed Christ, hence the title.

David Hare is one of the most creative, thoughtful, curious playwrights whose plays conjure dilemmas of faith, morality, responsibility, relationships, and love. With The Judas Kiss he has tried to examine love and betrayal from the point of view of two celebrated characters and is only half successful. Wilde is such a huge figure in literature because of his wit and the cleverness of many of his plays that it seems diffcult recreating of him as human at all without that endless wit. You wonder if he can say anything that doesn’t sound as if he has polished, honed and shaped the lines before he spoke them.

In one of Bosie’s more prickly moments, he runs Wilde down by saying that history will forget him; his plays will be forgotten and never performed. Irony is a wonderful thing. In fact it’s Bosie who is barely remembered and only as the lover of Oscar Wilde who was responsible for his downfall.

Wilde on the other hand is still remembered. His plays are still done regularly more than 100 years after his trial and imprisonment. He is also commemorated in other plays such as The Judas Kiss. I just wish it was a better play.

David Mirvish, Chichester Festival Theatre, in association with Robert Fox, Theatre Royal Bath Productions, and Hampstead Theatre Productions:

Opened: March 30, 2016.
Closes: May 1, 2016.
Cast: 7, 6 men, 1 woman.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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