The meteoric, if still fitful, recent progress of LGBT acceptance into Western social and legal norms makes a study of Oscar Wilde’s life and works especially apt today. David Hare’s The Judas Kiss speaks directly to modern concerns. It imagines a crucial turning point in the Irish writer’s life when, declining to flee into exile, he opted to face trial and a likely prison term for “gross indecency.”
With Liam Neeson in the lead role, the play underwhelmed on Broadway in 1998, but a fresh, and acclaimed, English production directed by Neil Armfield and starring Rupert Everett has opened at BAM, where it will run through June 12.
With impressive dexterity, Hare has written dialogue for Wilde that measures up to the man’s legendary wit. For his part, Everett achieves the elusive theatrical magic of a larger-than-life yet utterly believable performance. Indeed the whole action bubbles in a heady broth of elevated naturalism, a recipe Hare balances so masterfully.
One of the greatest English-language wordsmiths in history, Wilde was extremely famous in 1895, when Act I is set. The writer meets in a hotel room with his devoted friend and onetime lover Robert Ross, played with steely mournfulness by Cal MacAninch, who has been arranging his friend’s affairs in anticipation of exile. Along with an amorous and fizzily funny pair of hotel staffers and a stuffy manager, they are joined by Wilde’s current amour, the young poet Lord Alfred Douglas, “Bosie” to his friends, whom Charlie Rowe charges with impatient, edgy romanticism.
Wilde, by contrast, wears a thick cloak of feigned indifference. Its folds part when he sighs, “Open that door and the real world comes into this room,” but he sheds it entirely only when he is finally alone with his meticulously ordered lobster lunch. Though Everett looks a bit too old for the role, one can quickly suspend disbelief amid the crusty, aggressive eloquence of his multilayered portrayal, made even more effective through playing off Rowe’s sharp, brittle Bosie, who is keen to use his aristocratic connections to win Wilde an effective defense.
But though he seems to be dithering, Wilde’s mind is made up, as he discloses in just the way a playwright might. “I am trapped in the narrative. The narrative now has a life of its own. It travels inexorably towards my disgrace. Towards my final expulsion.”
In Act II, Wilde has served his prison term and settled in Naples with Bosie. Though only a couple of years have passed, the writer has visibly devolved from an animated if grouchy wit with a commanding presence into the sort of sallow, beaten-down “old queen” Bosie insists he himself will never become. Barely moving from his chair, Wilde passively observes Bosie’s dallying with an attractive Italian named Galileo (a funny turn by Tom Colley). He then receives an unexpected visit from Ross bearing news that Wilde’s estranged wife has finally cut him off financially.
Then he suffers a worse, if predictable, abandonment: Bosie is leaving what has become, for him, a stultifying interlude, and quitting what today people call the “gay lifestyle” for a conventional aristocratic life back home in England. A few cheap lapses mar the script here, such as Bosie using stereotypical modern-day drug-addict formulations about his ability to quit anytime. Rowe, perhaps aware of this, overdoes things to compensate. And at the pair’s parting, the melodrama gets a bit heavy, though I found myself grudgingly acknowledging Hare’s skill at massaging it.
All in all, we’re lucky that Armfield and the Chichester Festival Theatre together with their production partners have crafted this revival, and that the gifted Everett with his charismatic solidity is on hand to center it. Wilde, his health damaged by prison, lived only a few years after the events of Act II, dying of meningitis at just 46 in 1900. Leaving us a body of work for the ages and a personality to match, he deserves no less than a stage rendering by a great actor and one of our finest playwrights. That’s what you’ll find at BAM through June 12.