Rather than present us with sweeping biopic, David Hare dramatises the life of Oscar Wilde by placing two moments side by side. The first act of The Judas Kiss sees Wilde retreating to a hotel room following the collapse of the trial that leads to his imprisonment for sodomy – while his friends encourage him to escape the country, he orders lobster and chooses to remain. In the second we see Wilde in Naples, older and sicker after two years behind bars. In defiance he has renewed his relationship with his former lover Bosie, but is preparing himself for the betrayer’s kiss.
For the most part there are few surprises in this snapshot of the dramatist with witticisms galore in the face of adversity. But it is the second half when The Judas Kiss achieves its power and Hare’s ideas about fate, choice and the individual against society begin to crystallise. By focusing in, Hare’s play becomes a portrait of a man whose wit and obstinacy lands him in as much trouble as what happens when he closes the doors and turns the lights down.
It is difficult to understand what Wilde sees in Freddie Fox’s Bosie, who is an arrogant toff who saves his own public reputation at the expense of his lover’s and claims that his own suffering was worse that Wilde’s while he was locked away. More textured is Cal Macaninch’s portrayal of Robert Ross, Wilde’s first lover who is prepared to make the sacrifices Bosie isn’t. Wilde is caught between the two in a dramatic shape that resembles the Prospero-Ariel-Caliban trinity. Rupert Everett delivers a mannered performance as Wilde. But when the public persona is swept away and the man crumples at the realisation that his revels now are ended, the performance – and the play – is at its best.
Dale Furguson’s design struggles to evoke a sense of Wilde’s downfall, from the London hotel where is talk of the town to the rat-infested Neapolitan squat he finds himself bidding farewell to a life lived. But there is much to admire in this production and while Everett spends an entire act in a single chair, he doesn’t fail to move.
The Judas Kiss is playing at Hampstead Theatre until 13 October. For more information and tickets see the Hampstead Theatre website.