The life, love, and tragedy of Oscar Wilde
Originally written and performed in 1998, The Judas Kiss by David Hare is an examination of the time period in Oscar Wilde’s life when he was swept up into a scandal revolving around his homosexuality. The current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Neil Armfield, deploys a minimalist set for dramatic effect and stars Rupert Everett in a tour de force portrayal of Wilde himself.
The first act opens on a scene of two minor characters, Arthur and Phoebe, having graphic sex onstage. Both characters are fully nude and not at all shy about it. The scene continues for a while before they are interrupted by the manager of the hotel in which they work. The ensuing scene is casual, with the manager seeming to feign annoyance more than being actually mad.
Subsequently, Robert Ross (Cal MacAninch), a close friend of Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, arrives to prepare the hotel room for Wilde and Douglas. Lord Douglas (Charlie Rowe) arrives next, and Wilde soon after. MacAninch, Rowe, and Everett each portray the three historically accurate characters in play and each deliver unbelievable performances. Rowe offers a frenzied portrayal of the spoiled and tempestuous young ‘Bosie’. MacAninch expertly plays a man who desperately tries to maintain his cool while everyone around him ignores his advice. Everett is so downright wonderful, with a witty deliver that feels utterly authentic, that it is impossible for even a moment to doubt that he is the living incarnation of Wilde himself.
The story unfolds through hints and clues and offhand comments. If an audience member were unfamiliar with Wilde’s life story, they would easily be able to piece it together from the dialogue. Hare’s writing and Armfield’s direction keep the dramatic tension high, but also maintain enough comic moments and witticisms to make the heartbreaking moments even more biting.
The central conflict hinges on the day Oscar Wilde was tried for gross indecency for allegedly having romantic and sexual relationships with a number of young men. Ross incessantly urges Wilde to flee the country and escape conviction. Bosie, on the other hand, frantically compels Wilde to stay by his side and fight his case. It becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to tell whether the men want what’s best for Wilde or want to exert a kind of control over him for selfish means. Ultimately, tragedy is unavoidable and Wilde becomes a kind of figurehead for the tortured soul trope of an artist.
While mostly an examination and superb treatment of historical material, there is a golden nugget of social commentary buried into the play. The opening scene of a man and woman having sex is contrasted with a scene at the opening of Act II when two men are seen nude after they’ve had sex. In the first act, the hotel manager treated his employees, who had just been found having sex in one of the client’s beds, with a casual air and seemed to really care less. This is a nonchalant attitude to take toward something not only seen as immoral, but also grossly inappropriate to do while working. Yet later on, there is also a casual scene of two nude men. These two scenes are presented almost in parallel due to their placement at the opening of each act. Despite bearing similarities to the scene between the opposite-sex pair, it is impossible to ignore the crushing weight of the fact that the sex between the first couple is not only accepted, bur practically condoned, while the sex between the second couple leads to a crime, a trial, an imprisonment.
The Judas Kiss is playing at BAM through June 12. It is written by David Hare, directed by Neil Armfield, and stars Rupert Everett, Charlie Rowe, and Cal MacAninch.
Photo credits: Huffington Post.