As a play about love, betrayal, friendship and morality, I much admired David Hare's The Judas Kiss when first seen at the Playhouse, fifteen years ago, with Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander playing Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, “Bosie,” in Richard Eyre’s fine production.
Neil Armfield’s notably well drilled and superbly, sensitively inflected revival, first seen at Hampstead Theatre last September, has added elements of both suavity and prickliness to the arguments, and drawn from Rupert Everett as a wise and kindly Oscar – lower jaw jutting, long hair centre-parted, articulation perfect - one of his finest, darkest creations, and from Freddie Fox as the insufferable Bosie his best performance to date in an already promising career.
Hare’s Oscar is not the flouncing epigrammatist or predatory, pancaked old queen of stage legend and notoriety, but a watchful, thoughtful, considerate literato, sadly cut off from his children, with a tendency towards ageing and immobility that brings out the slightest of the haughty dowager in him.
And Fox, fizzing with energy, presents a Bosie of charm and irritation in equal parts, also a figure, even allowing for his gilded youth, of quite incredible, self-obsessed stupidity. As Oscar’s libel action against the Marquess of Queensbury (Bosie’s father) collapses, he claims a tragic status for himself as victim and artist that is breath-taking.
No-one has to say a thing: Everett’s features settle into a mask of semi-scornful affection, and he takes you to the ambiguous heart of someone who’s lumbered with loving a louse. So skilful is Hare’s writing – there’s no hint of either period “style” or jolting anachronism, it’s all fluent and modern – that Bosie’s departure in Naples really does slam the door on a forlorn and pitiful figure: nothing ahead, save utter loneliness and the grave.
Hare also avoids the pitfalls of historical drama – much as his contemporary, Howard Brenton, did last year in 55 Days, another underrated, exceptional new play from the old guard – by writing around events, not doggedly through them.
In the Cadogan Hotel, Wilde has to decide to face the music in a second trial, or flee to France, attended by the devoted friend and former lover, Robert Ross (a neatly anguished portrait by Cal MacAninch), and some equally devoted hotel staff; in the second act, in the bay of Naples, he is broken and increasingly marooned after his two years in Reading Gaol, while an impervious Bosie is still wasting time, money and good will.
Both claustrophobic sets by Dale Ferguson have billowing bed sheets. In the Cadogan, we see Ben Hardy’s cheeky waiter locked in ecstatic union with Kirsty Oswald’s pert chambermaid while, in the second, Bosie is enmeshed with a well-endowed fisherman (Tom Colley makes a West End debut of relaxed and minimal inhibition).
These encounters underline the draining of joy and carnality in Wilde’s life; he’s reduced to the husk of an aesthete who was gifted in tongues but cheated of delirious, uncomplicated physical passion. And they add real poignancy to a play that is all talk of the highest quality, and a very distinguished addition to the West End list.