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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis