It was long accepted after his performance in the 1995 movie Wilde, that Stephen Fry had given the ultimate portrayal of Oscar Wilde. But after witnessing Rupert Everett’s stunning performance in the current revival ofThe Judas Kiss, it would appear Mr Fry has some stiff competition.
Wilde has long been accepted as the martyr of homosexuality, and here in David Hare’s excellent play, the religious analogy is spelled out clearly. As he awaits arrest in the Cadogan Hotel, it is clear that the love of men is Wilde’s religion, in which he is both ahead of his time and unapologetic. He choses to stand trial and punishment, rather than fleeing into exile, to be forgotten forever. He explains ‘If I leave now, my story is over. If I stay, the story continues.’ Indeed, Wilde’s legacy is as much about his historic trial and conviction, as it is about his rich body of literature. The hotel is Wilde’s garden of Gethsemane, where he has been cruelly abandoned by the men who followed him in his years of glory.
Freddie Fox makes an impeccable Bosie – Lord Alfred Douglas – the young aristocrat whose relationship with Wilde was the toxic element that led to his downfall. His temper, arrogance, and utter disregard for others are presented here as they have been in scores of biographical accounts. Wilde was blinded by his beauty, and forgiving of his wicked nature. Their relationship was tempestuous and destructive, and by betraying Wilde for his own ends, before leaving him to face the mob alone, he is quite obviously the Judas of the play’s title.
Freddie Fox makes an impeccable Bosie in the production.
The second act is set in Naples, where Wilde is exiled after his two years in prison. Reunited with Bosie, he now lives in poverty, in deep contrast with the lavish lifestyle he enjoyed in Victorian London. Suffering from writer’s block, he blames Bosie for eroding something greater than his life – his art. Once again, in his hour of need, Bosie leaves him to return to England. Despite spending the act frolicking around with a naked Italian fisherman – a worthy attraction in itself – Bosie believes he can ‘give it up at anytime’, and insists he’s ‘not an invert’. It is then that Wilde recalls movingly the biblical account of Christ. ‘Judas was practically a stranger. It would have been more artistically true if Christ had been betrayed by John: because he was the one he loved the most.’
There is no doubt as to who the star of this show is. Everett triumphs as Wilde. Dressed to look every bit as large and flamboyant as the legend himself, he captures the stage with his arrival, and lights it up with every line. Everett has had a lifetime of preparation for this, playing Wilde’s own dandies, and their great modern equivalent – the gay best friend. The audience marvels as he recites in the manner we imagine Wilde did: every monologue rich with observation and unrivalled intellect; every retort delivered with legendary wit and wisdom. But more importantly, this story is about the forgotten years of Wilde. This is a man who was a star of the academic world, the toast of the London stage, a celebrity before celebrities existed – and yet he ended his days in disrepute, poverty, and loneliness, deprived of his lovers, his children, and his ability to write. Performing Wilde’s comedy is one thing, but Everett delivers his painful tragedy.
There is a consensus that Rupert Everett has been sold short in his career – typecast because of his decision to be openly gay. In many ways, it makes him a suitable successor to Wilde’s philosophy. But if there is any justice for talent, this will mark the beginning of a new period of theatrical roles for Everett, for which he is more able than many of his contemporaries. Although Wilde is his specialist subject, and this performance was bound to be outstanding, it opens a door that should lead to his greatest years yet.
This review appeared originally on SoSoGay online.