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The Judas Kiss – Richmond Theatre, London

Writer: David Hare

Director: Neil Armfield

Reviewer: Ian Foster

[rating:2.5]

Fresh from a successful run at the Hampstead Theatre and before its arrival in the West End in the New Year, this revival of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss visits Richmond Theatre for a week and packed out the halls (and overcrowded foyer) of this Victorian theatre last night. The play focuses on two episodes in the destructive relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas: the first as the playwright retreats to a suite in the Cadogan Hotel in the wake of his failed attempt to sue Bosie’s father for libel and in anticipation of his own arrest; and the second two years later as Wilde tries to recuperate post-incarceration in the warmer climes of Naples.

Everett makes a different Wilde to the one one might expect. Hare resists the temptation to over-burden him with an ever-present rapier wit, making him a more solemn, melancholy figure – though one who can still produce a barbed comment at the drop of a velvet hat – thoroughly pummelled by the weight of Victorian society’s puritanical hypocrisy, a point hammered home by the opening image of screwing servants. But there’s an element too of self-flagellation here, even against the advice of his nearest and dearest to flee for France. With a tragic knowingness in his eyes, Everett’s redoubtable Wilde determinedly holds onto his personal integrity even as he knows that Bosie cannot, or will not, match such devotion.

Making a convincing case of a mismatched relationship is always difficult and it is a challenge that Freddie Fox’s Bosie doesn’t really meet here. Marrying narcissistic self-absorption with the deeper charisma needed to convince that this was a relationship Wilde would invest in so thoroughly in is a tough ask, especially when so little help comes from the playwright whose choice of scenes work against such a portrayal, but Fox is too concerned with the former to pay enough attention to the latter. His flouncing petulance in the first half quickly wears thin, though the way in which his vacuity is later self-exposed has a bitterly comic edge as his self-preservation instincts kick in once again.

The economy of Hare’s writing ensures that this is no hurried biographical account, but in limiting his canvas thusly, there is little context to suggest the genesis of this all-consuming passion, the potential motivation for Wilde’s martyring impulse that would lend a greater emotional charge to his actions. And the static nature of much of the second act – Wilde sits centre-stage as Bosie and his tanned new Italian lover swan around in the nude – stultifies the already languorous pace of Neil Armfield’s production.

Moments of vibrancy flash through: the excellent Cal Macaninch’s compassionate companion Robbie Ross has a genuinely touching groundedness as the only other character of note in the play; Everett’s sudden spark of anger as his sense of abandonment by family and friends darkens the Neapolitan sunshine. And as a whole, there’s a powerful study of the capacity of love, homosexual or otherwise, to encourage extraordinary behaviour. But it is intermittently fascinating rather than dramatically compelling, earnest rather than essential.

Runs until Saturday 3rd November and then transfers to the Duke of York’s from 9th January

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