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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear