It’s hard to imagine better casting for a play about Oscar Wilde and his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas than Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox, and the two leads more than live up to expectations, both of their performances beautifully nuanced.
David Hare’s play starts with Wilde holed up in a hotel room, his arrest pending. His friend Robbie Ross (a tightly wound and wounded Cal MacAninch) urges him to flee to France, his lover Bosie wants him to stay, and Wilde himself seems unable to process his dilemma, preferring to vacillate over his meal and get steadily more drunk, while over-tipping the hotel staff in typical extravagant style (albeit, tellingly, with Robbie’s money). In the second half we see the price of this inertia, as Oscar and Bosie are stranded in exile, Wilde ageing and bitter as his younger lover chafes at the restrictions of poverty, amusing himself with the locals while Oscar tries in vain to write.
It would be all too easy for the play to paint Wilde as martyr and Douglas as villain, but to his credit Hare avoids such convenient categorisation. Everett perfectly captures the caustic wit of Wilde, but also the fact that he could be pathetic and tiresome, and that he was a man who more than slightly contributed to his own downfall – there is no nobility in his fall, no great moral purpose, and you’re left with a surprising amount of sympathy for Bosie, for who wouldn’t be bored to be tethered to a man whose life has shrunk to his armchair? It’s just a shame that Neil Armfield’s production didn’t have enough faith in Everett to let him act unadorned: the fat suit and make up are so noticeable as to be distracting, especially in the second half of the play. Sitting in a hat, knees shrouded in a rug, he looks unnervingly like the drag character he played in St Trinian’s; his haunted performance deserves better.
Fox, meanwhile, is a revelation. His Bosie is the shallow youth of popular imagining, but his mercurial slyness plays cleverly with our sympathies: one minute he is the voice of the modern world, demanding that Wilde stand up for ‘Greek love’ against those who would denounce it shameful, the next he is declaring that his own experiences are merely a phase, and he’s ready to reclaim his rightful role in the family business, which is, presumably, to marry a nice English girl and sire future Lord Douglases. His creative pretensions may be laughable, but his self-serving delusions are so utterly convincing you get the impression he doesn’t even recognise his own lies as he rewrites the sorry saga to his own advantage. He’s so persuasive as he argues to save his own neck under the guise of altruism – as he explains at every stage why it is better for Oscar that he, Bosie, stay out of the limelight and, therefore, the danger – that you almost believe him. Unfortunately the play never truly gets to the heart of their relationship, beyond the obvious appeal to age of beauty, and to youth of fame and worldliness. Given this lack of connection, it’s hard to blame Bosie for cutting his losses and taking the escape route that is offered to him, and equally hard to sympathise with Wilde as a man who chooses such a shallow boy over his own children.
But in the end this doesn’t matter because really, Hare’s play is as much – if not more – about class as it is about love. We see this from the off in the slightly-too- stereotyped hotel staff (especially Ben Hardy’s cheeky, flirty working class boy who is more than willing to use his charms to extort favours from the ageing gays around him). There’s a beautifully played moment when Alister Cameron’s hotel manager refuses Wilde’s excessive tipping because, he says, it’s been an honour to have him as a guest – while the working class staff look on, trying to hide how appalled they are by this refusal, because in their world, there is no room for such fawning – they just want (and need) the cash. While Wilde recognises that as an Irishman he is always an outsider, he never fully grasps just what that means, believing his position as exotic, entertaining foreigner allows him to flaunt his unconventionality without realising just how little leeway it actually gives him, and how vicious the establishment backlash will be when he exceeds it. Likewise, swayed by Bosie’s passionate protests of standing up for himself and his way of life, he is, perhaps wilfully, blind to how much Bosie’s privilege protects the young man, the inalienable safety net that his position bestows. The upper class boy is allowed, chastised, to return to his proper place, while the foreigner is condemned for their combined sins, and thus is the status quo maintained.
Although undeniably deserved, the transfer from the much smaller Hampstead Theatre to the West End stage isn’t entirely successful. The larger space loses much of the claustrophobia of Wilde and Bosie’s isolated exile, and despite Dale Ferguson’s elegant sets, the first act suffers from some exceptionally clumsy staging, tables and chairs obscuring the performers, even from a seat in the stalls. Armfield’s direction is sympathetic but also a little indulgent, and the first half is rather too languorous: for a scene where the clock is supposedly ticking on Oscar’s escape, it lacks any real sense of urgency. The second half more than redeems things, packing a real emotional punch.