The casting for Neil Armfield’s revival of David Hare’s Oscar Wilde bio-drama “The Judas Kiss” is a kind of corrective. At its 1998 premiere, Wilde was played by Liam Neeson, whose open heterosexuality helped neither the role nor the abidingly straight production. While it would be preposterous to suggest that straight actors cannot play homosexuals, casting notoriously gay Rupert Everett lends Wilde undeniable authenticity. With palely beautiful rising star Freddie Fox as Bosie, Armfield has a potentially strong hand. Too bad that he woefully overplays it.
Hare’s speculative play examines two pivotal moments. The first finds Wilde holed up at the Cadogan Hotel after the collapse of his first trial. The police are about to rearrest him, and the act covers Wilde’s decision as to whether to flee the country, as his friend Robert Ross (a quietly expressive Cal Macaninch) suggests, or to stay and fight, as suggested by his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie. In the second act, Wilde is found, post-imprisonment, eking out his days with dwindling cash in Naples.
Both acts focus on the question asked by everyone who has researched accounts of Wilde’s spectacular fall: Why did a man of such intelligence repeatedly return to the fatal embrace of Bosie, whose obviously mixed motives and supremely selfish behavior wrecked Wilde’s career, reputation and life?
To answer that dramatically, no matter how troubled the relationship, the pairing must feel convincing. And it’s at that first hurdle that this production falters.
Fox’s recent rise as the go-to cute young lead has been meteoric thanks to a string of varied and highly controlled performances. Yet here he has been encouraged by Armfield to hurtle over the top. Hare depicts Bosie as, at best, petulant and self-serving, but that doesn’t mean the character need deliver his lines as either a shriek or a whine. It’s initially arresting, but such an expressionist approach is at odds with the script. And beyond Bosie’s come-hither fascination, it’s hard to imagine Wilde wanting to spend five minutes inspired by him, let alone a lifetime.
Everett is equally extreme. He strongly resembles the Wilde of portraiture thanks to padding, make-up and a painfully obvious wig. Even more bizarrely, his slow, stiff physicality looks as if it derives from being terrified that said wig will fall off. It’s an effective impersonation but one that, for the most part, keeps Everett at a remove from the other actors.
His wearisome manner is amplified in the second act. Glued to his chair beneath a wide straw hat with a coat draped over his knees, dispatching droll observations in a quavery voice, Everett most resembles Miss Prism attempting to play Lady Bracknell.
Toward the end of the play, Ross confronts Wilde over his refusal to give up Bosie, but Hare shies away from answering the play’s question. And although Wilde’s climatic analysis of Bosie’s weakness and addiction to power, family and position is stingingly accurate, it suggests a self-knowledge that unseats the foregoing debates. Hare’s most original observation is his thread that Wilde’s Irish identity was provocatively at odds with the hypocrisy of upper class England. With Neeson in the role, that seemed resonant. With utterly English Everett, it’s a less winning position.