Humanity may have flown to the moon and discovered the Higgs boson, but it's possible we'll never really understand how rugged silver screen vengeance-monger Liam Neeson came to be cast as Oscar Wilde in the original 1998 production of David Hare's 'The Judas Kiss'.
Rupert Everett – gay, erudite, and spectacularly outspoken – was clearly born to play Wilde. And whaddya know? He's superb: after the tepid response to the original production, Everett has powered Neil Armfield's revival to rave reviews and great commercial success, scoring Hampstead Theatre a West End transfer.
An intense, witty, and deeply humane play, 'The Judas Kiss' draws pointed parallels between Christ's betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane and Wilde's abandonment by his impulsive lover, Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas (an incandescent Freddie Fox).
Everett's vulnerable, bibulous Wilde isn't exactly Jesus-like. But he is undoubtedly a towering figure: intellectually physically, and even morally. He is motivated only by love, he tells Bosie, and he deploys his great wit not waspishly, but in an effort to lighten the gloom as the hour of his 1895 arrest for indecency draws near.
Wilde's refusal to flee from his fate is a petulant gesture. But Everett invests the Irish writer's willfulness with great dignity: it's also a brave gesture by a tired man who doesn't want to leave his lover or his two young children.
There's a faux-racy undercurrent to the play that doesn't really work: if Wilde's not going to get his cock out and Bosie's going to cover his up, then the constant nudity from minor characters feels rather forced.
But the naked people are peripheral: this is all about Wilde and Fox's quicksilver Bosie, a spoilt brat whose sheer unguarded surrender to his emotions makes him hard to despise.
There is the danger that 'The Judas Kiss' could come across as a whitewash for a luvvie icon who was undoubtedly rather less humble than the man we see on stage. Yet Wilde's not the only historical figure praised here. Allegory cuts both ways, and the intimation that Christ too was a decent, brave man feels like a generous gesture from the atheist Hare.