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The Judas Kiss

British film star Rupert Everett gives a bravura performance as Oscar Wilde in a revival of a talky play by David Hare.

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Rupert Everett and Charlie Rowe in a scene from “The Judas Kiss” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Rupert Everett and Charlie Rowe in a scene from “The Judas Kiss” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

British film star Rupert Everett gives a bravura performance as playwright and author Oscar Wilde in the Chichester Festival Theater revival of The Judas Kiss by David Hare now at the BAM Harvey. His nuanced performance is remarkable considering how little active the play allows him to be. Wilde dominates the plot even though he sits center stage in the play’s two acts, first in a hotel room in London immediately before and then in a villa outside of Naples immediately after his arrest and incarceration for “gross indecency,” what Victorian England called homosexuality. This is a Wilde we haven’t seen before: rather than tossing off quips and aphorisms, this is a man who is deeply in love and conflicted about questions of self-identity and legacy. He attempts to remain true to his persona at a tremendous cost.

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.

Charlie Rowe, Cal MacAninch and Rupert Everett in a scene from “The Judas Kiss” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Charlie Rowe, Cal MacAninch and Rupert Everett in a scene from “The Judas Kiss” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

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

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (679 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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