David Hare, who turns his plays out one on top of the next, can be sly when he wants. The Judas Kiss--about Oscar Wilde on the day he's arrested (April 6, 1895) for indecency and then, in the second act, revisited sometime after he's been released from Reading Goal--doesn't begin with Wilde (Rupert Everett) and his notorious lover, Alfred, Lord Douglas, known as Bosie (Charlie Rowe).
When Rick Fisher's lights go up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey, Hare presents a naked man and a naked woman caught in flagrante delicto on a hotel bed. The hotel is the Cadogan on London's Sloane Street, and the two emerging buck-naked and buff from under the covers are staff members Arthur Wellesley (Elliot Balchin) and Phoebe Cain (Jessie Hills) interrupted by a superior, Sandy Moffatt (Alister Cameron).
Will the latter fire the former pair? It seems like an obvious cause for dismissal, but he doesn't take that step. He merely chastises them, tells them to dress and to continue going about the business of preparing the room for its distinguished guests.
With praiseworthy subtlety, Hare establishes what may not be publicly acceptable in Victorian Great Britain but what's allowable if carried out behind closed doors. Hare has deftly put in place the hypocrisy underlying Wilde's perilous position as having brought national focus on his admitted homosexual activity at a time when the word "homosexual" hadn't yet been entered in the wider lexicon.
Only then do Wilde's companions Bosie and his former boyfriend/now attendant Robert Ross (Cal MacAninch) enter the tidy and unusually spacious environment set designer Dale Ferguson has created. The officious Bosie, feeling his oats as an aristocrat, and the concerned and measured Ross appear locked in a competition for Wilde's favor.
Which continues, even though, when Wilde at last enters in greatcoat and stylish suit (Sue Blane is the costume designer), they both agree on the choice Wilde, in great confusion, should make between two options he has for the immediate future: fleeing the country to avoid arrest and likely imprisonment or remaining where he is and facing the consequences.
Since the outcome is known, the first-act suspense doesn't rest on his decision but on the tenor of the arguments offered--on the passions with which Bosie and Ross press their points and the reaction Wilde, bewildered at how he foolishly allowed himself to land in his predicament, tries to gain emotional footing.
(For those who don't know the situation: Having been called a sodomite in a note from the Marquis of Queensberry, Bosie's furious father, Wilde sued for libel. In the trials that ensued, Wilde made the dreadful mistake of responding to a barrister's question about kissing a rent boy by dropping a misguided bon mot. He quipped that he wouldn't have kissed an ugly boy. That did in the defense.)
The high-class first-act bickering that results accounts for the drama's initial pull. An especially hot exchange occurs when Ross, still clearly enamored of his ex-lover, points out that Wilde would never have gotten in this pickle if Bosie weren't seizing on the scandal to get at his disapproving father--if, that is, Bosie weren't simply using Wilde for revenge.
To be sure, Wilde, being who he is, is rarely lost for words. Hare has him spout any number of Wilde-worthy epigrams. The only moment when he finds nothing to say--he actually breaks down--is after insisting that Rob tip Moffat, Arthur and Phoebe with money he can't afford to give away. But they refuse to take it, thanking him for his kindness and declaring they appreciate his being a gentleman when so many of their guests are not.
Incidentally, among Hare's other incisive observations is the frequency with which the upper class at the time fought among themselves in front of the serving class on the tacit understanding that one class was invisible to the other.
In the second act, Wilde, now more or less confined to a chair and out of money in a hotel outside Naples, is not only entertaining Bosie but also a boy called Galileo (Tom Colley), who speaks no English but is so stunningly handsome as he lolls around in the altogether that he doesn't need to.
The thrust of the act is that Wilde, who knows Bosie inside and out, realizes he's about to be abandoned by the self-absorbed lad. He may only be slightly more surprised when Rob, who's come to visit, is ready to do whatever he can for Wilde but is also concerned about his reputation being compromised by his lingering association with the once lionized but now ailing and disgraced playwright.
The rationales Bosie and Rob give for removing themselves are dismaying. Bosie claims he's never been a committed partisan of, in the phrase he coined, "the love that dare not speak its name." He says he's always planned to marry and raise children. (Subsequently, he did both.) Rob, who's already been hinted at as a mother's boy, confides that he can't bring shame on her.
The odd irony of the weaklings' pronouncements is that, as the act unfolds, Wilde increasingly acquires a melancholy dignity. Eventually left alone in the chair from which he's hardly risen throughout the act, he's a figure of despair, a victim of his own devices as well as of those prevalent in a forlornly repressed era.
There are those who say that with Wilde, Everett is giving the performance of his career. Perhaps he is, as directed by Neil Armfield, who had revived the play in Australia and caught Everett's attention. He's surely giving a performance different from the ones he's given over the years as an elegant leading man, a man who's made "suave" his middle name. (He's equally suave in his memoirs, Vanished Years, the most recent.)
His Wilde--in a hefty body suit, his hair long and wavy--is quite a shift from his Charles Condomine in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit a year or two ago. It can be conceded, however, that Wilde is more psychologically complex than the men Everett is usually asked to play. (Maybe not the drug-addicted Nicky in Coward's The Vortex.)
This Wilde is a man too brilliant for his own good. He's a man only slowly coming to see how he's condemned himself in a society he's relentlessly mocked for its flaws but is now having its payback. It's difficult to keep your eyes off him, even as his supporting players are giving performances at his level--even as, in the second act, the taut Colley rearranges himself on the floor or when Armfield has him lean against a doorframe and stretch in the sun.
By the way, the Judas kiss of the title is bestowed, as might be guessed, by Bosie, and Wilde's reference to it underlines his position as sacrificial lamb already led to public slaughter in Hare's heart-breaking work.