In his programme notes, David Hare asks whether the recent memorial to Oscar Wilde at Westminster Abbey is due to his brilliance as a writer or as a desire by the English to expiate their treatment of him. Certainly, the establishment of the time has much to be ashamed of. But Hare s superb new play, well directed by Sir Richard Eyre compliments of the Almeida, concentrates not on the public hounding of Wilde but on the private betrayal of his friends, family and associates.
Two episodes in the writer s life are covered - the hours before his arrest and his life with Bosie in Italy, following his release from prison. In these, Hare goes one step beyond presenting Wilde as literary martyr, offering a Christ character instead. Wilde himself, alive to the dramatic possibilities of the Bible, muses that Judas was the wrong character to have been chosen to betray Christ. How much better it would be if he d been betrayed by John, the disciple he loved the most.
This certainly was Wilde s fate, betrayed most awfully by Lord Alfred Douglas, his own Bosie, but also by his wife and the artistic circle that lionised him. Wilde s Gethsemane is the Cadogan Hotel, his Last Supper a Lobster à l Americaine as, offstage, the Home Secretary vacillates Pilate-like, in the vain hope that Wilde flees the country.
It is his refusal to flee, and the reasons for it, that occupy the first half of the play. In Hare s interpretation, Wilde is driven not merely by his obsession for Bosie, but partly by his (misguided) love for his friends and mainly because he cannot bear to separated from the London that sustained him.
Liam Neeson s performance makes this Wilde believable. Neeson must have been tempted to play Wilde as a Bunthorne-like fop or as a stage-Irishman, railing against English morality: he does neither. Instead, his Wilde is recognisably human.
But, while it may be Neeson who packs the house, it is Tom Hollander s Bosie who really holds the attention. By turn snivelling, boastful, arrogant, cowardly, greedy and self-serving, he continues to captivate Wilde, whose own generosity and kindness cannot comprehend such baseness of character. Peter Capaldi s Robbie Ross is almost as good. He genuinely loves Wilde but can t resist disowning him. Ross s cowardice is as reprehensible as Bosie s exploitiveness.
But then, in Hare s play, no one is allowed to take the shine from his Oscar. This might not be an accurate reflection of the facts, but it makes for a great evening s entertainment.