Only a brave man would attempt to put words into Oscar Wilde’s mouth and David Hare has done just that in his play The Judas Kiss. In Neil Armfield’s fantastic production we are given a front row pass into the most intimate moments of Wilde’s infamous life. We are shown the invulnerable wit in two states of profound vulnerability: first in the Cadogan Hotel, awaiting his fate after the collapse of his libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury; and then with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) in Naples, after two devastating years of imprisonment.
Great actors are sometimes accused of just playing themselves and here there is definitely something very Rupert Everettish about Oscar Wilde, but in this case it proves to be just what the aesthete ordered. It is, however, also a reminder that Everett hasn’t been Everett nearly enough in the last ten years and it is a particular pleasure to see him sparkling again, in the role of his life.
Everett’s Wilde is a sharper more truthful rendering than previous attempts to portray the man. In Brian Gilbert’s film Wilde Stephen Fry played him with a squidgy avuncular warmth that softened him a little too much. Whereas here, Everett gleefully gives the wit back its rapier.
The lines are delivered with a salivating slickness that is almost as compelling as the real thing might have been. The evident relish with which Everett lashes out the words gives the audience just a glimpse of what it might have been like to be in the presence of everyone’s fantasy dinner guest. He is also beautifully supported by Freddy Fox’s compellingly catty Bosie, who preens his way across the stage frantically searching for his own best interest. It now seems the only place that has more foxes than London is the Equity members list.
Bosie is the key to understanding Wilde and his life. He was the pivot on which it turned from triumph to disaster in no time at all. Wilde can sometimes come across as a rather foolish, if noble, character who faced up to his punishment rather than running away, but then punished himself by going back to Bosie, when he should have fled. But Hare suggests that Wilde was not blinded by love, rather that he was deliberately dazzled by it for its own sake. Wilde knew well what the consequences might be, he just didn’t care as much about them as he did about love. This revived production of the Judas Kiss was well worth the thirty-odd pieces of silver.