Oscar Wilde, his flamboyant life, decadent fiction and the fascinatingly tragic progress of his trials lend themselves brilliantly to fictional reinterpretation, holding just enough mystery to allow for continued exploration. Reconstructions of Wilde’s life, character and entourage have produced diverse works ranging from Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde and the Candelight Murders, which played with the notion of the flâneur developing into the detective, but also went out of its way to hammer home Wilde’s role as a devoted family man; to Floortje Zwigtman’s rather marvellous young adult trilogy Een Groene Bloem, in which a young working-class boy discovers his homosexuality, becomes entangled with Wilde’s set and witnesses his trials as a court reporter.
As popular biographical representations go, you can’t beat Brian Gilbert’s 1997 biopic Wilde, with a fantastically flamboyant yet sensitive Stephen Fry in the lead.
You can’t beat it – but I was wrong to doubt, when we decided to reward ourselves at the end of a term spent studying the fin-de-siècle, with a trip to the Duke of York’s Theatre to see The Judas Kiss, whether it could be added to. By trying to cram most of Wilde’s busy career into 118 minutes, Wilde necessarily left much of the characters’ psychological motivations unexplored, and this was precisely where playwright David Hare stepped in to fill the gaps.
The claustrophobic settings of the play’s two acts are highly conducive to a detailed examination of the thoughts, actions and motivations of a very limited cast, with at its centre, firmly planted in a chair in the middle of the stage, characteristically disdaining unnecessary motion, Rupert Everett as a long-haired, purple-cloaked Oscar Wilde. The first act takes place in Lord Alfred Douglas’s room at the Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde, in the company of Bosie and Robbie Ross, and supported by the hotel’s waiting staff, is awaiting arrest to be tried for gross indecency. The rising tension as Bosie, Robbie and Wilde clash over the court case, money, love and lunch is subtly emphasised and amplified by the presence of the hotel’s waiting staff, who provide comic relief, underline the hypocritical class distinctions of fin-de-siècle London, and eventually pay touchingly honest tribute to the magnanimity and gentlemanliness of Wilde’s character and behaviour, regardless of what he may or may not have done, or whether society, outside of the safety of the hotel room, condemns him.
I admire David Hare for elegantly side-stepping Wilde’s trial and his sentence: the real tragedy unfolds in the second act, where the chair and the hollow shell of the dramatist Oscar Wilde have been moved into exile in Naples, where Bosie picks up Italian fishermen while Wilde tries, hopelessly, to write. Abandoned by his friends, on the brink of divorce from his wife and debarred from contacting his children, Wilde gradually dwindles into apathy and silence. As the scene progresses, for the sake of Queensberry blood money, Bosie at length abandons him too. The menace of his presence is cleverly enhanced by the shadow-play on the wall behind them: suddenly, as he triumphs, the diminutive Bosie’s shadow towers over the broken Wilde. It is then that the title of the play becomes clear: Wilde, the Irishman, spent his evenings in prison reading and rereading the Christ story, and concluded it made no sense for Jesus to have been betrayed by Judas, a virtual stranger. It should have been John, the man whom Jesus loved most.
From the gloriously aesthetic sets to the subtle character portrayals, this play proves itself entirely au fait with its subject matter and historical context. The production fit together like the smooth velvet folds of a decadent décor. In deliberately not attempting to portray the major turning points in Wilde’s life, but engaging with them in a retrospective interpretation, Hare gets the history across as part of a sophisticated character exploration, and reflects the hopelessness of Wilde’s post-productive life. And casting Rupert Everett was, of course, a stroke of genius.
Having said that, a drink at Kettner’s in Soho, a bar frequented by Wilde himself, rounded off the evening very nicely.