'The Judas Kiss': Theater Review

Courtesy of Cylla von Tiedemann
Everett delivers a definitive performance as the brilliant writer in this thoughtful drama.
6/12/2016

Rupert Everett stars in this new production from director Neil Armfield of David Hare's 1998 play about Oscar Wilde.

The program for The Judas Kiss claims that Rupert Everett is starring in the play currently running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. But don't be fooled. The heavyset, mournful-looking man dominating the stage is clearly Oscar Wilde, the subject of David Hare's 1998 drama. He's miraculously been brought back to life by the veteran British actor best known on these shores for his memorable turn in the romantic comedy My Best Friend's Wedding. Inhabiting his role to an almost eerily immersive degree, Everett delivers a performance that deserves to become legendary.

Previously seen on Broadway in an unsuccessful production starring a miscast Liam Neeson, the play depicts two pivotal episodes in Wilde's life. Act 1 is set in Wilde's suite at London's Cadogan Hotel, where he is about to be arrested on the charge of "gross indecency" following his ill-advised libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry for accusing him of sodomy. Wilde's devoted friend Robert Ross (Cal MacAninch) urges him to flee the country, while his younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Charlie Rowe), the Marquess' son known as "Bosie," argues that he should stay and battle it out in court.

It's no spoiler to reveal that Wilde chose the latter option, only to receive a two-year, hard-labor prison sentence. Act 2 takes place in 1897, where a now impoverished and physically depleted Wilde, subsisting on an allowance from his wife Constance, is living with Bosie in a rundown seaside villa in Naples. He's once again faced with a difficult decision when Ross unexpectedly appears and advises him that his wife will cut off his financial support unless he breaks away from Bosie.

Wilde, for all his acerbic wit, is depicted here as a deep romantic whose adoration of his younger lover proves his undoing. Despite the cost to his freedom and his finances, he chooses to remain loyal to the self-absorbed, self-serving Bosie, even when confronted with his brazen dalliance with an Italian stud.  

The play is admittedly a bit slow and talky, feeling longer than its two-and-a-half-hour running time. As if aware of the stasis, Hare delivers a startling and extraneous opening scene featuring the nude coupling of a hotel bellboy (Elliot Balchin) and a chambermaid (Jessie Hills). And in the second act, Bosie's Italian lover lounges around totally nude for a long stretch (actor Tom Colley well fulfills the physical demands of his role).

Still, there are many moving moments, such as the casual encounters between Wilde and the hotel employees — rather than make his escape, the pleasure-loving writer chooses to enjoy a leisurely, wine-filled lunch — that reveal his courtliness and compassion. And as might be expected, his sardonic humor is on ample display, with Hare providing the character with bon mots of which Wilde would certainly have approved.  

The witticisms are, not surprisingly, delivered with exquisite comic timing by Everett, who has performed in the screen adaptations of such Wilde comedies as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband (he also has a long-aborning screen project about Wilde in the works). But his performance goes much deeper, superbly conveying Wilde's self-awareness and crumbling façade as his genius and fame fail to insulate him from cruel fate. Wearing a fat suit and a wig, the dashing actor is virtually unrecognizable in the role, but the weight of his portrayal is as emotional as it is physical.

The supporting performances are strong, with MacAninch particularly moving as the ever-loyal Ross. Director Neil Armfield's staging exudes a strongly sorrowful atmosphere, abetted by Dale Ferguson's unfussy sets and Rick Fisher's piercing lighting. At the end of the play, when Wilde sits dejectedly alone on the stage, clearly not long for this world, the lights grow dim until there's only a single spotlight on his face, which is slowly extinguished. It's as if we're watching the death of a spirit. 

Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn
Cast: Elliot Balchin, Jessie Hills, Alister Cameron, Cal MacAninch, Rupert Everett, Charlie Rowe, Tom Colley
Playwright: Dave Hare
Director: Neil Armfield
Set designer: Dale Ferguson
Costume designer: Sue Blane
Lighting designer: Rick Fisher
Music: Alan John

Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Production: Chichester Festival Theatre in association with Robert Fox, Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Hampstead Theatre Productions
Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music

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