Review: The Judas Kiss

Rupert Everett is superb in this revival of David Hare's play.

 

A new production of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, directed by Neil Armfield at the Duke of York’s and starring Rupert Everett, dramatises two occasions in Oscar Wilde’s life. The first half of the play is set in the Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde awaits imprisonment for the crime of indecency. Surrounding him are his friend and ex-lover Robbie Ross, his current lover Lord Alfred Douglas (or "Bosie") and a few romping room servants. In the second half, the action moves to Naples. Wilde’s reputation has been blackened and he has spent two years in prison. After Wilde returns to Bosie, the two live impecuniously, Wilde rusting in an old arm chair and Bosie entertaining a luxuriously nude Italian named Gallileo.
 
The play’s pressure point lies with poor old Robbie Ross. He tells Wilde that he must resist Bosie if he is to save himself (no one listens). Cal MacAninch uses the ringing rhythms of Robbie’s speech to articulate the simplicity of his message. But Robbie’s urgent clarity remains ambiguous, even during the play’s most piercing, and wise, moment, in which he refers to Wilde as a genius who allows himself to be treated like a poodle. This is the tragedy of the story. Wilde’s brilliance leads him to live by an ethic of love.“Only when we love,” he says, “do we see the true person … love is not the illusion. Life is.” Yet this belief overthrows him. He continues to sue to the squabblesome Bosie because he loves him; so unconditionally, he insists, that he should never have to justify why. Robbie speaks with such lucidity because he is unburdened by love or genius, while Wilde becomes asphyxiated by both.
 
The predominant theme is sacrificial love, and Wilde behaves rather like the brass-band of a ship which continues to play as the vessel sinks. When the police bundle their way up the Cadogan, Wilde (appetite sated by lobster and pommes dauphinoises) poses sedately with a book. The waters rise around him throughout the play, but he does nothing to escape, and only plays on - more finely, more eloquently, we suspect, than many men ever have done. He delivers the epilogue as darkness fills the stage and slowly envelops him, allowing Bosie’s treachery to finally drown him.
 
The near unanimous praise for Everett’s performance is merited. He enunciates with a seething assurance, trusting that Wilde spoke as if he were performing prose, and aerates his lines with metallic intakes of breath sucked through his teeth – to suggest that not even Wilde’s pauses were silent. And when it is Wilde who is listening to others speak, Everett appropriates a kind of refined gurn, suggesting that even in passivity Wilde was effervescent.
 
This energetic inactivity is the salient feature of Everett’s performance. He spends much of the show seated centre-stage, yet not once is the action static. This in part is because Bosie, Robbie and the servants spend most of their time spiralling around Wilde as if he were a maypole, but also because if an actor of this standard were playing a character of this ardour in a week-long monologue from the bottom of a manhole, it would still have more dynamism than the Moscow State Circus.
 
There are instances in the play when Hare clarifies what a giant Wilde was to the cantankerous Bosie (during the final Socratic excoriation, for example: “[Are] you the only man who packs his bags to stay where he is?”). It is also the case that Everett’s performance makes a dwarf of Freddie Fox’s portrayal of Lord Alfred Douglas. His mottled effeminacy and aristocratic vainglory are certainly effective, and he exudes a waspish irascibility which helps us to sympathise with Wilde’s disinclination to argue with him (tell me I’m England’s greatest non-narrative poet or I’ll scream!) Yet, the performance doesn’t go much deeper. Perhaps this is because the character isn’t much deeper, but there is an amateurishness in Fox’s rushing and bounding which never quite conquers its brashness. It felt like the work of a very accomplished drama student beside Everett’s statesmanlike performance.
 
"The Judas Kiss" runs at the Duke of York's Theatre, London WC2, until 6 April.
Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde and Freddie Fox as Lord Alfred Douglas in The Judas Kiss at the Duke of York's. (Image courtesy of thecornershoppr for the Duke of York's theatre)
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism