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.