Thursday 13 September 2012

Theatre review: The Judas Kiss

"Why on earth did you do it?" One of the programme notes, written by his grandson Merlin Holland, asks one of the biggest questions about the trials of Oscar Wilde: He instigated the whole thing with a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry's accusation of being a "somdomite" (sic) knowing all along it was not only true but easily proved. This is one of the two main questions tackled by David Hare in his play The Judas Kiss, which is revived by Neil Armfield at Hampstead Theatre prior to a tour. The second central mystery concerns the other man at the centre of the trials, the Marquess' son Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas: Why did Wilde not only keep coming back to, but willingly allow his life to be ruined because of a young man who (in Hare's interpretation at least) seems to have had no redeeming features whatsoever?

This is one writer trying to understand another, which is clear in Hare's suggestion that Wilde's life was defined by his need for a narrative structure. This seems to be the answer to these mysteries: The first act takes place in Bosie's room at the Cadogan Hotel, during the first trial. Wilde's (Rupert Everett) case is clearly falling apart, after one too many witty epigrams in the witness box have given away his true sexuality. The police will be along to arrest him soon, and the men around him have conflicting advice: Bosie (Freddie Fox,) still motivated by hatred for his father but preferring Wilde to take the fall, wants him to keep going in the desperate hope that the trial can be turned around. In an excellent understated turn from Cal MacAninch, Wilde's first lover and oldest friend Robbie Ross advises saving his pennies and making a speedy escape to Europe.

Wilde of course stays around to pursue his lost cause, and the play suggests this is because he sees himself as a character in a narrative, and wishes to follow it to the story's proper conclusion, even if in this case that means he's the martyr figure. His self-destructive behaviour continues when we meet him again in the second act. Two years on and with his prison sentence behind him, he reunites with Bosie and moves with him to Naples where they live penniless. His wife will cut him off entirely unless he gives his lover up but now Wilde's decided that he wants to go against the narrative: Convention wants him to "learn a lesson" by giving up having sex with men, but he's determined to continue being himself, less as a moral stance than in a petulant demonstration that society's punishment hasn't changed him. As the sedentary Wilde, Everett spends much of the play sitting magisterially centre stage, feigning indifference while, to the panic of those around him, his life falls apart.

The production is highly sexual, but in a matter-of-fact way: Even before the central characters first enter, The Judas Kiss shows us a behind-the-scenes world of sexuality at odds with the Victorian public image that Wilde would become the fall-guy for: Instead of making up Bosie's hotel room, chambermaid Phoebe (Kirsty Oswald) and porter Arthur (Ben Hardy) are having sex in his bed. When hotel manager Moffatt (Alister Cameron) catches them, Arthur flashes him, suggesting what the punishment Moffatt promises him later might be. The stocky, surprisingly deep-voiced Hardy'sFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT is the first of three in the play. (And my personal favourite. His relevant area had a lot of personality. No, I don't know what I mean either.) In the second act Fox also gives us a flash, while Tom Colley as the Italian fisherman Bosie's brought home spends the first 15 minutes lounging around naked like, in Wilde's words, "a kitten."

(On a side note, Richard was my theatre companion again tonight, and has been a bit irritated that this year Andy's stealing his crown for most frontal male nudity seen on stage. The Judas Kiss' triple threat would have put him back on equal terms, if he hadn't been late arriving, and missed Hardy's revelations in the opening scene.)

Yes, yes, this is going to be another of those reviews people complain about for straying ever so slightly off-topic and being unprofessional, as if I get paid to do this. Anyway, even for those not defined by their voyeuristic tendencies The Judas Kiss is worth a look if you can get a ticket (it's not sold out yet but seems well on its way.) Hare and Fox have perhaps turned Bosie into a bit of a one-sided monster but there's some nice touches of irony in his catty attacks on Wilde, whose plays he predicts will never be staged again after his dishonesty about his sexuality. Instead the world has ultimately seen the playwright as a victim, a point of view the play shares, although it argues that he was largely a victim of himself.

The Judas Kiss by David Hare is booking until the 13th of October at Hampstead Theatre; then continuing on tour to Bath, Richmond, Brighton and Cambridge.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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