David Hare’s diptych about the decline and fall of Oscar Wilde hones in on two decisive moments in the man’s life. The first half is set in Wilde’s suite in the Cadogan Hotel on the afternoon on which his libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry has fallen spectacularly apart. The police are on their way to arrest him for sodomy, the press are massing at his door, and his friend, Robbie Ross, is begging Wilde to use the slim window of time they have left to flee to France. But his darling Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, wants him to stay, to stand his ground, and Wilde also believes that he is in some way “trapped by the narrative”, that he has no choice in the matter. He seems almost wilfully determined to be dragged down by the gods, believing the outcome of his story is, like Christ’s, all but inevitable despite Ross’s increasingly desperate pleas that he leave England while he still can.
The play’s second act is set two years later in the Neapolitan fishing village to which Wilde has retreated, diminished in every sense by his time in Reading Gaol, with Bosie – once again – in tow. It’s by some way the more emotionally gripping part of the play. Wilde has got his wish, and is busy pickling in melancholy, disdaining motion of any sort, while Bosie cavorts with the tanned local fishermen. It’s this second half which provides the emotional charge that the play requires and – with the exception of an achingly tender exchange between Ross and Wilde – is largely absent from the first half.
There’s a real poignancy to the way in which Wilde explains his belief that there is nothing delusional about falling in love, how in actual fact it brings the true nature of a person into the light (“Love is not the illusion. Life is.”), while all the time Bosie is planning to abandon him, to retreat into his aristocratic familial cocoon and the financial security which comes with it.
It takes a while for Rupert Everett’s performance as Wilde to warm up. This is partly due to the alien physicality; he’s puffy and neckless, Mr Toad wearing Rufus Wainwright’s hair. Only in the second half does he seem to really settle into the role, reining in his more flamboyant gestures, internalising his pain; there’s a delicious stillness to this later, deflated Wilde. Everett sits primly in the centre of the stage, with his moth-eaten greatcoat spread over his lap, his pallid face shaded by a limp straw hat. Occasionally he lets an eye glide casually over the sculpted, naked body of Galileo, but otherwise he stares flatly ahead.
Freddie Fox’s Bosie, meanwhile, with his wet-lipped schoolboy pout and Mount Etna temper, initially comes across as a tantrum throwing brat, a petulant man-child in a salmon cravat, but Fox manages to generate small moments of tenderness and affection between the pair, moments which make it possible, albeit briefly, to see why Wilde may have been so fixated with this spoiled and selfish young man. Cal Macaninch, as the steadfast Robbie Ross, is perhaps the most touching and restrained of the three; when he admits sadly to Wilde, “I adored you too,” both men know that, true as this was, it was never enough. It’s one of the production’s most heart-breaking moments.
Hare’s 1998 play – much like Everett’s performance – strips away the surface flamboyance, the veneer of myth, to expose the man beneath. It also takes a scalpel to Victorian hypocrisy when it came to matters sexual, something Dale Ferguson’s design underlines, the dishevelled bed featuring centrally in a set which seems to have been sparked by Wilde’s purported deathbed retort that “either the curtains go, or I do.” Here the curtains appear to be eating the set like something out of a 1950s B-movie, spilling from above like a great velvet waterfall, and pooling alarmingly on the floor.
This set-up is echoed visually in the second half: the bed remains the focus, this time swathed in gauzy white cotton upon which Bosie lies in a post-coital tangle while Everett’s Wilde regards him with something akin to resignation, glorying in the beauty of the boy while knowing in his heart that what they have cannot last.