by JK Clarke
While the deprivation of human rights of any person or group at any time is categorically unacceptable, it’s sometimes astonishing to examine how much progress has been made in certain instances. Gay (or more precisely LGBTQ) rights is one such instance, and the telling of literary lion Oscar Wilde’s persecution and ostracization (for being purportedly homosexual) in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theatre (produced by the Chichester Festival Theater) is a perfect illustration of how far western society has come since the late 19th century when Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor for the mere presumption that he’d engaged in homosexual acts.
Oscar Wilde is a perfect figure for a tragic biographical sketch. Hugely talented and beloved by all (now as well as then), his later years were marred by desperation, betrayal and destitution. But like any good tragic figure, Wilde could quite conveniently have sidestepped a good deal of his sorry fate. The Judas Kiss picks up on the eve of Wilde’s impending arrest for “gross indecency” (which was routinely applied to homosexual men, with or without evidence of any actual act), stemming from a libel prosecution he’d initiated against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie (played here by Charlie Rowe). As a courtesy, the government had provided Wilde with ample time to flee the country, which is where the play begins.
Few actors could be better suited to play Wilde than Rupert Everett, who has devoted himself to the role in both look and temperament; he delivers Wilde’s notoriously pithy epigrammatic commentary with delicious flippancy. Everett’s Wilde seems to understand that his preference for men (Bosie, in particularly) who do him exceedingly more harm than good, is his addictive weakness. His tolerance for Bosie is otherwise completely unfathomable. Bosie is whiny and annoying, which would be tolerable if he were otherwise good to his lover. But he is not. He selfishly has dragged Wilde into every single bad decision the man has made. And when the chips are down and the two are living an impoverished life in exile in Italy—all Bosie’s doing, ultimately—he abandons the man who has sacrificed everything. It’s simply too bad that Bosie didn’t ultimately suffer the same fate as that other Judas.
This ought to be a play where words matter most. And, they do. But the banter between Wilde and Bosie is lost in the latter’s one-dimensional delivery, which was shouty and unmeasured. Rather than a battle of wits, the dialog between the two men is one-sided, with Wilde’s delicious quips not given a chance to settle on the audience before they are drowned out. Furthermore, the play might have been better as a two-hander, not because the supporting cast weren’t compelling, but because they are introduced and seem to drop away, their importance failing to register. The hotel servants in the first act—the head butler Mr. Moffatt (Alister Cameron), Arthur (Elliot Balchin), and Phoebe (Jessie Hills)—open the play in delightful fashion with Moffatt walking in on Phoebe and Arthur in flagrante delicto. It’s a beautifully played scene (with total nudity that perfectly illustrates a lusty atmosphere despite the apparent Victorian constrictions surrounding them), that leads one into greater expectations of these characters which unfortunately never materialize.
Much in the same way, and hinting at a deeper message, the second act opens with Bosie in bed with a handsome young Italian fisherman teasingly named Galileo (Tom Colley), who proceeds to strut around the stage stark naked, remaining so for the most of the remainder of the show. But the thrust of the play isn’t in the scene-setting sheets, but in the banter. “What’s his name?” Wilde asks of Bosie’s bed mate. Then, when told, “Ah. See stars, did you?” Hare’s writing is terrific here and throughout, and so evocative of Wilde. But director Neil Armfield doesn’t let the words penetrate and so much of the play is lost. Perhaps it’s the wide open, yet lush Victorian set (Dale Ferguson)—evocatively lit by Rick Fisher—and perhaps the play should be staged in a smaller, more intimate theater to bring the audience closer to and more involved in the discussion. That way the betrayal, muted rage and humor wouldn’t be as likely to float away, past the audience, who probably didn’t realize what they missed.
The Judas Kiss. Through June 11 at BAM’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, at Ashland Place in Brooklyn). www.BAM.org/theater/2016/the-judas-kiss
Photos: Richard Termine