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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE JUDAS KISS
at the Hampstead, then touring

WILDE AT HEART
By SAM MARLOWE

  Freddie Fox and Rupert Everett/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Would Oscar Wilde be the mighty literary legend that he has become, had he not been convicted in 1895 of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Reading Prison? Only one of his plays is truly great, and much of his prose is so overwrought and self-conscious as to be almost unreadable. But the Irish aesthete and author who created the sublime Importance of Being Earnest and the iconic, exquisite “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” with his hideous, ageing portrait in the attic, has been immortalised, not to mention mythologised, by the cruelty and injustice inflicted upon him. What tormented him psychologically, destroyed his reputation during his lifetime and did irreparable damage to his body has preserved his fame forever.
 
David Hare’s 1998 drama considers the high price of that artistic immortality. The playwright shows Wilde’s steadfast adoration of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a spoilt young man who in many ways proved himself grotesquely unworthy of such devotion, as heroic – the more so, because Hare’s Oscar is only too aware of Bosie’s faults. And in his quiet acceptance of Bosie’s betrayal, Wilde becomes a Christ figure, crucified for his unshakeable faith in the overriding supremacy of his right to love, however unwisely. Critics reviewing Richard Eyre’s original production, which starred Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander, were largely unimpressed. But in this delicate, compassionate revival by the Australian director Neil Armfield, with a cast headed by Rupert Everett as Wilde and Freddie Fox as Bosie, the play emerges as a profoundly moving portrait of a highly intelligent and gifted man publicly sacrificed for his private life, suffering behind a mask of insouciance and style that, despite his best efforts, keeps slipping.
 
Hare depicts two pivotal moments in Wilde’s now notorious downfall: his decision at Knightsbridge’s Cadogan Hotel not to follow the advice of his friends and flee the country after the collapse of his libel case against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury; and Bosie’s desertion of a broken, penniless Oscar, in a seaside town near Naples, after three months’ cohabitation in exile from England following Wilde’s release from prison. Everett’s honed frame and handsome features are transformed by padding and a centre-parted wig. There’s flamboyance, but also an ineffable weariness, in his manner and appearance as he orders a lunch of lobster a l’Americaine at the Cadogan and struggles to batten down his mounting fear and distress. Fox is beautiful, brattish and obnoxious as Bosie; but he also has complexity, his arrant selfishness matched by a genuine tenderness for Wilde, while Hare's portrayal of his aristocratic assurance that class, money and social standing will ultimately save and protect him has real sting.
 
“I shall not run down this hole they have dug for me,” declares Oscar. And if prison heartbreakingly crushes some of the exuberant defiance out of him – Bosie’s remark that England will not change if no one speaks out against inequality is met with only the retort, “Changing England is low on my list of current priorities” – Wilde retains his fury at those who would dictate how he should live. It’s a rage that even his steadfastly loyal friend and former lover Robbie Ross (Cal MacAninch) is lashed by when he dares to suggest a degree of society-appeasing compromise – Oscar’s permanent separation from Bosie – which to Wilde amounts to a humiliating and unacceptable penance that heaps on the misery and punishment beyond the serving of his sentence. The world has become a prison, and throughout the second act Wilde is physically inert, confined almost entirely to a chair, while Bosie disports himself with a handsome Italian fisherman, and later delivers the final act of treachery that will leave Oscar utterly isolated. It’s an image as steeped in bleak despair as a scene by Wilde’s countryman dramatist, Samuel Beckett.
 
There is also, naturally, an abundance of wit in Hare’s writing, though wisely, he never stymies the action with overuse of Wildean aphorism. But this is above all an emotionally wrenching drama, acted with a precision and elegance that is finely balanced with raw feeling. It’s a powerful and humane play – and in Armfield’s production, it is beautifully done.

 


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