There’s a moment late in David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss where Oscar Wilde’s much-younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (known affectionately as “Bosie”), predicts the fate of Wilde’s creations: “You will be forever known as the man who was ashamed to admit his own nature!” he exclaims. “Your plays will be forgotten. They will not be played. Because you lacked courage.”
Much is made in Hare’s play, currently being being revived at BAM’s Harvey Theater, of the inability to be one’s own true self. Wilde was never able to admit to his homosexuality in public, despite the widespread knowledge of his nature. Bosie, despite his passionate love of men, still purports in the play that what he’s going through is just a phase, “knowing that [he] could stop at any time.”
It’s ironic then, that despite his inability to speak his own truth, Oscar Wilde has lived on as a cultural icon for queer people everywhere, his legacy that of an aesthete, a master aphorist, and a talented playwright and poet whose novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and plays (The Importance of Being Earnest chief amongst them) are part of the essential canon. His life has inspired endless scholarly accounts and a 1997 film starring Stephen Fry as Wilde and Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas. That duality in him – his inward pride and outward reluctance – are part of what make him such a compelling figure, a product of his time who was made a scapegoat in the name of moral decency at its hypocritical worst.
Hare’s play focuses on two specific moments in Wilde’s life. The first act depicts the eve of his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel in London, and the second depicts an evening two years after his release from prison, where he served time because of “acts of gross indecency.” Though Hare keeps the play’s motor running in the play’s first half by introducing the ticking time clock of Wilde’s impending arrest, the second act – despite moments of lyrical beauty – can’t quite match the first for pacing. It’s a languorous, heady, wordy play as a whole, one that will appeal mainly to those with a thirst for Wildean wit and a glimpse into the life of a literary great, but one that rewards less by virtue of its dramatic dynamism.
Rupert Everett plays Wilde with the kind of wry wit you’d expect and with an air of exhaustion that’s fitting for a man past his physical prime and burdened by the trials, literal and figurative, of life as an unwitting criminal. As Bosie, Charlie Rowe evokes the petulant self-aggrandizing qualities that those familiar with their famous relationship have come to expect.
Dale Ferguson’s handsome set and Rick Fisher’s effective lighting help to make this an all-around lovely production, helmed as it is by Australian director Neil Armfield (Diary of a Madman at BAM, Exit the King on Broadway), who makes the most of Hare’s less-than-crackling script, which inspires moments of brilliance amongst the production’s game cast but which can’t quite transcend its limitations within the biographic genre. Hare, a master political playwright, is at his best tackling moral dilemmas and ethical quandaries, some of which appear in The Judas Kiss. The play’s balance, though, is tipped so heartily in Wilde’s favor that all other forces – especially Bosie and Robert Ross (Wilde’s first homosexual love) – get lost in the mix. Though Bosie and Wilde share moments of tenderness, it’s hard to truly understand what attracts Wilde to him besides his beauty. Without more to draw us to Bosie, he ends up more a two-dimensional figure than a compelling character – a shame, because Hare’s strength is usually his ability to hold both sides of a clash up for equal scrutiny.