October 11 at 09:30
by Lizzie Ward
Written by David Hare and first staged in 1998, The Judas Kiss was revived by Neil Armfield with Rupert Everett in the title role and Freddie Fox (brother of Emilia Fox) as Lord Alfred Douglas (otherwise known as Bosie). The play is about Oscar Wilde, and two fateful nights in his life – the evening he is arrested for ‘gross indecency’ and two years later, on his release from Reading Gaol, living in exile with the man who causes his ruin. In this incarnation, Wilde becomes the agent of his own destruction, and yet someone of unshakeable moral integrity.
The play opens with a flurry of activity – the pace of the first half belies the predicament that Wilde is in. Reporters clamour outside the Cadogan Hotel whilst Wilde, Bosie and Wilde’s faithful friend Robbie Ross, debate the merits of Wilde’s flight from England. On one hand, we have Bosie’s entreaties to stay, whilst Ross, played by Cal MacAninch, is the voice of reason throughout the play. Though the audience knows the outcome of this scene – Wilde’s arrest and incarceration – there is a sense of urgency. In the second half, Wilde is a shrunken, tired and impotent figure, unable to write, living in squalor as Bosie cavorts with Italians and spends the last of their money. Unable to let go of his love, he can see Bosie’s betrayal unfolding before him, yet seems powerless to stop it.
Far from being a replay of what might have happened in said hotel room and in Italy, these scenes instead show us a man pulled in two directions. We know that Wilde is an intelligent and renowned writer, yet he has fallen for a petulant man-child who enjoys the life and fame of his paramour. Bosie is portrayed unsympathetically. Rather than a victim of circumstance, a product of a hypocritical and controlling aristocracy, he is instead the playboy, the manipulative child. As a result, Bosie appears rather one dimensional, despite a brilliant performance from Freddie Fox. The audience are left wondering what brilliance Wilde saw in him. What is it that makes Wilde change his mind about living with Bosie after he writes De Profundis (a letter of regret about their affair) in gaol? Everett’s performance is one of the best of his career. He plays Wilde with depth and style, not devoid of wit and simmering intelligence. Wilde comes across as someone with generosity – of money and affection.
The Judas Kiss is almost indefinable. It has many layers – fame and hypocrisy, society and its treatment of gay people, love and illusions. It is as relevant now, if not more so, than when first staged. It portrays Oscar Wilde as he deserves to be seen – a literary genius and a man of generosity, wit and courage. The captioned performance was followed by an after show talk with speech-to-text. This deepened the understanding of the play, the events surrounding it and the artistic decisions that were made. Hampstead Theatre regularly follows captioned performances with speech-to-text discussions.