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Sometimes an actor inhabits a role so completely, so convincingly, that for the duration of a performance you really do believe you’re watching a different person. One such performance belongs to the rightly acclaimed Rupert Everett in his impersonation of Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. Everett seems born to play Wilde, capturing all aspects of the celebrated dramatist and poet. His studied nonchalance, the profound emotion it concealed and, most touchingly, his fatal capacity for affection. It’s a daunting task for any actor to portray a real person, as opposed to a fictional character, and especially difficult when that figure is someone of whom there is such an established image in the public consciousness. On top of this, Stephen Fry (more obviously a physical match than Everett, who is subtly bulked out by the costume department for this production) gave what has long been considered the definitive version of the playwright in the 1997 film Wilde: what more could be offered here?
The answer is: a great deal. Hare’s sensitive script allows Everett to fully flesh out a Wilde in the latter years of his life, still king of witty, cutting remarks, but with his pensive streak very much in evidence. He is ably supported by Freddie Fox and Cal Macaninch as two of the main players in the story of Wilde’s life – Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie) and Robbie Ross. While Fox gives a petulant, childishly arrogant performance as Bosie, careering across the stage like a tornado, Macaninch is equally impressive in a far more restrained role and they both work extremely well with Everett, creating riveting drama from an – at times – overly languorous text.
At one point, Wilde recounts an anecdote from his two-year spell in Reading Jail (subject of the famous ballad) – he was reminded to be patient by a warden, and retorted that there was a fine line between patience and apathy. Sadly, I found it difficult – particularly in the slow-paced first half – to maintain my patience with a script that feels as though it lingers far too long over the construction of characters. Once the niceties (and nudity) are out of the way though, Hare rightly focuses on his three leads and the complex relationship between them. In Oscar and Bosie’s case, this turns out to be a mutually self-destructive affair, fuelled by what Hare effectively sums up as their respective governing forces – love and power. In the end, something has to give, and before it does we are treated to an incredibly thoughtful and affecting exploration of romance: a look at who we fall in love with, why, and whether we can avoid inflicting collateral damage in the process.
Oscar’s wife Constance is necessarily overlooked for the most part. Unseen on stage, her presence is nonetheless felt throughout. Wilde deliberately puts himself at a distance from the scandal surrounding his relationship with Lord Douglas, preferring to concentrate as much as possible on the finer things in life: namely, food and “avoiding movement.” It lends a frustratingly static feel to the play as a whole and, despite Fox’s energetic performance, it makes Wilde’s claim that “we’re not hurting anyone” ring false. Of course, this enables Hare to make a strong point about Wilde’s propensity for denial and lack of self-awareness, but it seems a shame not to let Constance speak for herself, rather than having her feelings reported second-hand by Ross.
Hare never permits his detailed investigation into the inner workings of Wilde to be marred by sensationalism or a histrionic treatment of homosexuality, which is undoubtedly admirable, and he reflects the playwright’s own verbosity in some beautifully worded observations on the intersection between society and individual behaviour. It left me feeling that perhaps the whole thing would work better as a novel, the form being more suited to such rich text that Hare gives us, but this would mean sacrificing a set of fantastic acting performances from a brave, dedicated cast. Would this be worth it?
It’s the same question I found myself asking about Oscar and Bosie’s relationship – a genius whose main fault is a crippling glut of affection giving everything he has to a self-obsessed fop. But Fox has the skill to render Lord Douglas not entirely without charm, and although Wilde is clearly the main focal point Hare places a pair of well-rounded characters at either side of him.
Most importantly, the depiction is entirely believable – when Everett is left alone on stage at the close of the play, we feel as though we have really lived through events alongside him. It’s the mark of a truly great portrayal of a figure we probably thought we already knew all about, on the part of a writer and actor both at the height of their powers.