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)
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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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