July 01, 1999

Heartbreak Hotels

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre

The Judas Kiss
David Hare

Company B Belvoir
Optima Playhouse

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There is only one thing worse than being talked about, observed Oscar Wilde, and that is not being talked about. He and his shade can have little fear of that. Especially as the Nineties offer us so many centenaries. Of his successes – publications, lecture tours and opening nights. And of the dark days, of trial, imprisonment and – hardly before the century he influenced had begun- his death at the age of forty six.

The life and legend of Oscar Wilde has many reference points. There is his writing of course, still brilliant in its originality and strategic subtlety. And there is his public persona- his lily and blue cup aestheticism, his invention of celebrity and his bold attempt to defend sexual liberty. No wonder he has been co-opted by so many causes – for the cult of art for art’s sake, as Irish rebel, as a hero for the foppish Sixties and as principal witness for queer theorists and Boy George studies in the Nineties.

There has been no shortage of stage and screen Oscars – from Peter Finch and Robert Morley to the flintier rendition by Michael Gambon and the recent, blithe Stephen Fry. There have, as well, been significant television documentaries from Wilde descendent, Merlin Holland and gay theorist Michael Bracewell. So what does playwright David Hare bring to this crowded market place ? What new perspectives does he bring to the continuing deconstruction, reconfiguration and transfiguration of Oscar Wilde ?

I think the answer is: not much and not enough. The Judas Kiss, like Julian Mitchell’s film script before it, goes to the Well – that is to say, Richard Ellmann’s highly celebrated biography published posthumously in1987. It is from there that the incontrovertible facts come that, in his remarkable life, Oscar Wilde conquered both the American West and the London stage West, brilliantly manufactured Yellow Book style and met, and was ruined by, a vain, shiftless and half psychotic aristocrat by the name of Lord Alfred Douglas.

David Hare’s play has two settings, both of them- as they say in the buzzwords- defining moments for Oscar Wilde. Act I is set in the Cadogen Hotel on the afternoon before his arrest on charges of gross indecency. Act II takes place, in less salubrious digs, in Naples, after Wilde’s release from prison, when he rejoins Douglas for one final doomed attempt to create his relationship ideal.

This production, originating from Company B Belvoir director Neil Armfield and designer Dale Ferguson, is sparsely furnished except for a long scrollop of brown velvet running from the upstage flies to the edge of the stalls. But, despite valiantly resisting the detailed decor of a biopic, Armfield’s production nevertheless is constrained by Hare’s naturalism. Laced with Wilde-isms and competing Hare-isms, The Judas Kiss is forced to teeter between staged biographical report and cautious speculation; between impersonation and bloodless invention.

After an initial and meretricious glimpse of spirited (hetero)sex between servants, the Act I hotel scene settles into a lengthy explanation of Wilde’s predicament. A disastrous attempt to sue the Marquess of Queensbury, Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, for libel, has Wilde now facing arrest himself. He has choices to make. Stay and defend the charges, or hop through the window of opportunity and catch the night train to Paris. Robby Ross, the man who introduced Wilde -at thirty and married with two children- to the love that dare not speak its name, recommends discretion. Bosie Douglas, vengeful on his father’s bullying ways, is all for valour. Oscar’s, that is, because when the bobbies come knocking, Bosie is, of course, nowhere to be seen.

In red burgundy smoking jacket and silk tie, Bille Brown is an imposing Wilde, his strapping size a reminder that the playwright was almost a giant, and a paradox in his delicacy and mildness of manner. But despite the excellence and diligence of his performance, Hare’s script forces Brown either to deliver one-liners like a languid David Letterman or dispense Micawberish sentimentality- as when the servants, led by Neil Fitzpatrick as Sandy Moffitt, prepare a last supper of lobster while Oscar apostrophises on the kindness of strangers and tries to lever a fifteen quid tip out of Glenn Hazeldine as the harried Robby Ross.

The scene is entitled Deciding to Stay. But Hare gives it little more than a leaden sense of historical irony. Ross is depicted as a dreary pragmatist with no sense of the Issues at Stake. Bosie, played with suitably whining unpleasantness by Malcolm Kennard, sulks on the bed like a Generation X-er whom no-one will take to a nightclub. Oscar, betrayed in the garden by both Peter and Judas you might say, is left to wonder whether he is about to invent gay liberation or become a prisoner of literature.

Act two is less of the same. We are told, almost immediately, that it is an achingly beautiful day in Naples. Maeve Binchy might have said such a thing while holidaying abroad but from the lips of Oscar Wilde it fails to convince. By now much has happened. Wilde has done his porridge and his health, reputation and fortunes are ruined. But even now he has trusted Douglas to look after him in this one star villa-ette, surrounded by unpaid bills and Sardinian fisherboys. And, once more, Bosie has proven to be a treacherous little shit. Why David Hare needed to devote a further ninety minutes of script to these heartless repetitions is not clear.

The Judas Kiss, as its title suggests, focuses on Wilde’s betrayal by unworthies. Certainly the implication that Oscar was too good for this world is sustainable. It is ironic that he is identified with the notion that art has its own morality when he himself believed – and wrote about in such fables as the Selfish Giant and the Happy Prince -in a goodness much closer to the gospels and the golden rule. But David Hare, like the rest of us -especially after Ellman’s conscientious research- knows there is, prosaically perhaps, more to it than that. The Wilde story can no longer sustain such simplified suggestions of martyrdom.

And so he shifts argument – a point Neil Armfield takes up approvingly in his notes- by reducing the play down to a mushy cry from Oscar to “please allow us all to live our own lives”. This ignores the fact that Wilde says these words to Ross at the very moment when Bosie has talked him into taking up cudgels with a father he himself can’t countenance. It is a decision that is not heroic or tragic, or in any sense free. It is misguided and pitiful.

In The Judas Kiss the legend not only clashes with the life, it stalemates the play. And when Neil Armfield says that the text implies a world more literal than poetic he is actually right. Despite an accomplished production and some excellent performances from Bille Brown, Glenn Hazeldine and Malcolm Kennard, Armfield and Company B Belvoir cannot ultimately create interesting dramatic tension from a work shortcircuited by its own empiricism. David Hare needed to reinvent Wilde, or imagine someone else very like him. Instead, we are left only with the diminished and unsatisfactory feeling that Oscar Wilde wrong-footed his moment in history and had no-one to blame but himself.

Adelaide Review, July, 1999.

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