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A CurtainUp Review
The Judas Kiss
By Elyse Sommer
Some call it Wildeania, some Oscarinia. By any other name the appetite for books, movies and plays about the Irish-English celebrity writer Oscar Wilde seems as large as Wilde's own larger-than-life persona and enormous appetite for the best things in life which for him included sex with men. In Victorian England this last was subject to legal prosecution under the law of "gross indecency" and led to Wilde's three celebrity trials and incarceration.
The approach to Wilde taken in The Judas Kiss, the last in David Hare's trilogy of plays about love and betrayal, is best described as the Oscar Talk Show. Mr. Hare hints at but does not focus on Wilde's life as the outrageous and epigrammatic toast of London (as well as the U.S. lecture circuit). He uses the Court-TV worthy drama of the three trials that began with his own suit against his decidedly unworthy lover's homophobic father to jump start his examination of Wilde as a figure of almost biblical nobility -- to wit, the title's allusion to Judas Iscariot, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, who for thirty pieces of silver betrayed Him, with a kiss of identification to the priests and elders of Jerusalem.
What we have then is a play which uses what Hare calls "stage poetry" to reimagine what might have happened between Wilde and his current lover, Lord Alfred Doulas, (a.k.a. Bosie), and past lover, Robert Ross, (a.k.a. Robbie), during two crucial episodes of his life -- the first when he is faced with the choice of exile or arrest and the second two years after that fateful decision when he has risked betrayal once again by returning to the lover who already betrayed him once. In short we have Wilde at moments of emotional crisis without the more colorful scenes in his life that led to his fall from glitterati splendor to ruin.
We also have Liam Neeson the movie star and stage actor to bring his particular brand of charismatic excitement to the more spiritually than flamboyantly grand role Hare has assigned him. He does not disappoint.
Neeson's Wilde is indeed a towering spirit and physical presence and without any of the usual bombast and showiness. Unlike Stephen Fry who manages to strongly resemble him in the movie Wilde, Neeson's physical resemblance to Wilde is limited to his height. Oh, he still radiates style as he bursts into the Cadogan Hotel room of his lover in a fur-lined coat with his hair brushing his shoulders. Even with the playwright's firmness in holding back the usual shower of epigrams, the sardonic humor is still there.
Leeson is somewhat hobbled by a first act which is more or less a debate between Wilde, Lord Bosie (Tom Hollander) and Robbie (Peter Capaldi) as to whether should stay and eat his lobster lunch or flee to safety. As even those unfamiliar with Wilde's history quickly surmise, his story is indeed "already written" (as he sees it partially because the English are bound to punish an uppity Irishman but in fact by his own fatalism).
It is in the more interesting second act set in Naples that Neeson takes his real opportunity to hold us memerized. Here he's physically devastated by the imprisonment famously detailed in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. His face is etched in sadness and cast in an unhealthy yellowish pallor. The long hair hangs like dank sea weed and a heavy black suit underscores his displacement in the sunny world of Naples. As Neeson's Wilde puts it, looking like "a pederastic Anglican bishop who has been all night in a distillery." What's more he spends that entire act sitting in a chair. He is Jesus sitting on the cross, nailed there not by Judas but by John (the self-absorbed Bosie). Hare, like Wilde, is a talented wordsmithith and manages to inject wry humor into the biblical allusion to the title when he has Wilde state drily that "Christ died at six . . . the cocktail hour." Most importantly, the deposed giant always keeps his heart and soul and dignity intact.
As that first act is pretty much a set-up for the far more moving and dynamic second, so the passionate heterosexual love scene on which the curtain rises turns out to be a set-up -- in this case with no other purpose than to grab our attention. You could, I suppose, view that steamy curtain opener, in metaphorical terms. As the young servants' (Stina Nielsen and Alex Walkinshaw) coupling is interrupted by the demands of the hotel butler (Richard Clark), so the five years of passionate happiness knew in that room have been rudely interrupted by the Victorian facts of life and his own stubborn missteps in his battles with his lover's father.
The opening scene might also be said to unify the time span between the London and Naples scene which also begins with a coupling. However, such interpretations are a stretch. The passionate servants are extraneous. The later sex scene is more meaningful to the tragedy of Oscar's unstoppable passion for his fickle young Lord. In it we see Bosie making love to a young man (Daniel Serafini-Sauli) he picked up as Wilde, a desolate hulk in black watches and gamely musters his wit to describe the pair as "practicing astronomy" (the pick-up's name being Galileo).
Despite a respectably sized seven-member cast and a two-set design by Bob Crowley that magnificently captures the towering splendor of life before the trials and the loneliness and loss of the post-prison period, The Judas Kiss is basically a one-man show. Peter Capaldi as Wilde's first lover and devoted friend and adviser remains a rather nondescript and shadowy figure throughout. As for Tom Hollander's Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), what may seem like a clever bit of casting -- the diminutive Bosie dwarved physically as well as spiritually by Neeson's monument sized Oscar -- misfires. Hollander's Bosie is never anything less than a petulant, me-me-me brat who defends his first betrayal with "I was the last to go."
In a pre-opening interview Hare talked about Bosie as " a man with interests and feelings and loves and fascinations of his own, and I hope I do him the dignity of taking him seriously." While he has indeed captured the generous spirit of Wilde, Bosie never comes through as anything more than a pusilanimous, petty character who, as pointed out in our review of Gross Indecency lived long enough to become a Nazi sympathizer. His only memorable accomplishment, not mentioned in the play is the coining of the phrase "the love that has no name." For all of Oscar's protestation that no one has the right to ask "what do you see in him" you can't help questioning not only his choice but this major blind spot in his celebrated good taste.
So how does The Judas Kiss add up in the final analysis?
Talky first act. Moving second act. A tour de force for the main actor and worth seeing if only for that performance, but also for David Hare's always strong dialogue and ideas. An overheard intermission question from one audience member to another also bears repeating: "Would we be enjoying this more if we hadn't seen the other show downtown first?" So see Neeson who's here for a limited run first and save Gross Indecency which seems to have turned into a downtown landmark for a later more punched-up drama experience.