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A CurtainUp Review
The Judas Kiss

I am trapped in the narrative.
—Oscar Wilde
Rupert Everett and Charlie Rowe
R. Everett and C. Rowe (Photo: Richard Termine)
There are many broad themes assayed in David Hare's The Judas Kiss, an imagined retelling of the days before (Act I) and after (Act II) the trials and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett). We discover most of them in the crossroads between the then-notorious sexual creature, and the now-esteemed literary figure. David Hare seems far more interested in exploring these concepts, sometimes subtly but always emphatically, than he is in putting them into action.

"Action" (or the lack thereof) is, in fact, one of those themes. Wilde detests it, and Hare (as well as director Neil Armfield) is faithful to that sensibility: throughout the play and especially in the second act, Everett moves only slightly more than the famously immobile characters in some of Beckett's plays. The maxim may be that actions speak louder than words, but Wilde will have nothing of it.

The quote above typifies another interconnection: "Fate," something that explains Wilde's love in a way nothing else can, finds meaning in a literary formulation. How else are we to understand being trapped in a narrative?

There is also the recurrent notion of "silence." It too admits of many meanings, some sexual and some literary. So we have "the love that dare not speak its name" (credit that not to Wilde, but to his great love, Lord Alfred ("Bosie") Douglas (Charlie Rowe)), and we have Wilde's writing journal that we learn contains nothing from his time with Bosie other than some lists of things that he would buy if he had any money. "Silence," the great poet of his generation informs everyone, is "the most potent form of literary criticism." Here it is the symptom of being paralyzed by love.

Finally, there is "money." Everyone here is obsessed with it, and most are controlled by it. Wilde is compelled to give it to the hotel staff in Act I; he frets about not getting it from his publisher in Act II. It is Bosie's money, not love, that brings Wilde to Naples after his release from prison, and it is ultimately money that prompts both of them to part company. When the third cog in Wilde's life, Robbie Ross (Cal MacAninch), shows up unexpectedly in Naples to find Wilde and Bosie penniless, he leaves a few coins on the sideboard as one might leave pocket change for a chambermaid. (Pay attention to what becomes of those coins.) In the end, money weaves Hare's tale into its biblical analog, and its role in the final theme: betrayal.

I saw this play when it was on Broadway 18 years ago. (A link to CurtainUp's review of that production is linked below, as is the earlier London staging of the current production.) This is a superior production in every respect. The Judas Kiss is not a great play, not even one of Hare's best. But now it can be considered a very good play, and one well worth seeing.

Much of the credit must go to Everett who embodies Wilde in the thoroughly satisfying and effective way we wish every performance could. His often-static presence notwithstanding, Wilde surely comes to life here, and not as a two-dimensional character or one lacking the full complement of emotions. (It has been said multiple times that this is the role of Everett's lifetime, and I wouldn't disagree though he is still young enough to top it if he is so inclined. I have always found him to be a wonderful actor.) Armfield, the director, must share in that credit. There is unquestionably much to ponder here, but it is no longer ponderous. The remainder of the cast is exceptionally good as well, both in the principal roles, Bosie and Ross, and in the support roles -- the hotel staff (Elliot Balchin, Alister Cameron and Jessie Hills), and Bosie's Neopolitan trick, Galileo (Tom Colley), who gets extra points for spending much of his time on stage wearing only a smile.

The most challenging of these roles -- and the one that certainly attracts the most negative criticism (both in the linked reviews and elsewhere) -- is Bosie. It is a thankless task to portray someone that just about everyone in the audience spends much of the show hating, yet here Rowe (who was not in the UK staging reviewed at the link) does not seem like the petulant "misfire," as described in the Broadway review, who was not "anything more than a pusillanimous, petty character." This Bosie is a more complicated enigma, and in this production, one would be far less inclined to think of this as "basically a one-man show" focused on Wilde.

The design elements are all well-suited to the production. The set (essentially the same, it seems, from the UK version described at the link) has been well situated on the sometimes-challenging BAM Harvey stage. The sound design and music are quite effective although the challenges of the room were not all that well solved mechanically -- although every word was hearable, it seemed over-miked and at times hollow. Costumes are period perfect, and the lighting design was especially notable.

One final theme that warrants mention, and it connects all of the other themes: "power." We know a lot about the power of action, the power of money, the power of love and even the power of silence. What we are left with is Wilde's power of self. And it of course requires conjuring up one of his famous epigrams (even though there is no proof he ever said it): "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."


Broadway (1998)
London (2013)

The Judas Kiss
by David Hare
Directed by Neil Armfield
with Rupert Everett, Elliot Balchin, Alister Cameron, Tom Colley, Jessie Hills, Cal MacAninch, Charlie Rowe
Set Design: Dale Ferguson
Costume Design: Sue Blane
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Sound Design: Paul Groothuis
Music Composed by: Alan John
Running Time: 2 hour, 20 minutes with one intermission
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street (Ashland/Rockwell Pl.), Brooklyn
(718) 636-4100;
Opening May 17, 2016, closing June 12, 2016
Tues-Sat @7:30, Sat @2, Sun @3; $30-135
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 5/18/16 performance
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