The problem with the play which was also true in its Broadway production in 1998 which starred Liam Neeson (who was not terribly convincing) is that it is extremely static. Also we know how things turned out so there is no suspense as to the outcome. However, in this production there is another problem. Wilde staked his life on his love for Lord Alfred Douglas, the young poet son of the Marquess of Queensbury, a young aristocrat with a huge sense of entitlement. Whatever Douglas wanted, he is used to getting.
As played by Charlie Rowe, Bosie (as he was called) is petulant, willful, self-absorbed and demanding. Whether he was in love with Wilde is given short shrift in this production. However, he is not someone you would trust or fall in love with. It appears that Australian director Neil Armfield has chosen his interpretation around the title of the play for indeed Bosie is the Judas in Wilde’s life both before and after his imprisonment. As the emotional connection is missing, it has to be taken on faith which doesn’t make the production any more compelling.
The background to the play is the criminal libel suit brought by Wilde in 1895 against the Marquess of Queensbury over a note Queensbury had left him at his club accusing him of “posing as a sodomite.” Although warned by clearer heads that he could not win this lawsuit as Queensbury had a list of young men who Wilde had paid for sex, Wilde pursued it as a point of honor. After his case collapsed in two days based on his own testimony to the love that dared not speak its name, Wilde became liable for public prosecution as homosexuality had been made a criminal offense in 1886 in Britain. Wilde’s only choice was to leave London for the continent to avoid prosecution. Act I takes place in Bosie’s room at the Cadogan Hotel one hour before Wilde is scheduled to be arrested when he still has a chance to flee. Act II takes place two years later outside of Naples in a rented villa at which Bosie has joined the broken Wilde after two years of hard labor. Both parts of the play begin with nudity (both male and female) of attractive young people engaged in sexual relations.
Most compelling is Cal McAninch as Robert Ross, Wilde’s best friend and former lover, who continually gives him good advice he does not take. McAninch makes it clear to us that he is still in love with Wilde even though the playwright has moved on. While Bosie never risks anything, it is Ross who risks his own reputation and career. We feel both his pain and his urgency as time runs out and Bosie manipulates Wilde in his duel with his father. The rest of the cast include a suave Alister Cameron as a polite and obsequious hotel official in Act I, and Tom Colley as a hunky Italian fisherman who has caught Bosie’s eye in the second act.
Dale Ferguson’s design for the London and Naples sets is almost operatic in its sweep and scale. Unfortunately, the play is never more than conversations by two or three people so that both the sets and the stage of the BAM Harvey are a trifle too large for such small encounters. The costumes by Sue Blane are appropriately Victorian for both the upper and lower caste characters. Rick Fisher uses the lighting as almost another character both in the London and Naples sections of the play where obscurity is desired and the long shades of dusk begin to cover the walls of the set.
The author of Plenty, Skylight and Stuff Happens, David Hare’s plays are always interesting and provocative. The Judas Kiss is an intimate private look at the life of a very public person. As Oscar Wilde, Rupert Everett gives one of his finest performances. Unfortunately, the play offers difficult challenges, many of which this production fails to address.
The Judas Kiss (through June 12)
Chichester Festival Theatre production
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-636-4182 or visit http://www.BAM.org
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission