David Hare's poignant dramatisation of the downfall of Oscar Wilde is coming to the Old Fitz for Mardi Gras
David Hare’s 1998 play The Judas Kiss isan account of the lead up to, and aftermath of, the 1895 arrest of Irish writer and celebrated wit Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency” (read: being openly homosexual). The first act has him at London’s Cadogan Hotel trying to decide whether to stay and face arrest or flee the country (he stayed); the second act has him in exile in Naples, after a two-year prison sentence in which he was consigned to hard labour. The major task of the play is the exposition of how and why he stayed to ‘face the music’ – an apparently inexplicable decision that is complicated by the fact that the man who orchestrated his arrest, the Marquess of Queensberry, was the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie). As one might surmise from the title, comparisons with Christ are contemplated.
The Judas Kiss has all the trappings of a prestige drama (in fact Richard Eyre directed the 1998 premiere, starring Liam Neeson; Neil Armfield helmed a 2012 revival with Rupert Everett). It’s a surprisingly stuffy choice for an indie theatre tucked inside the basement of a pub; but it’s a well-meaning tribute to a great man and chock full of nudity to boot, so in some ways an obvious choice for Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras program.
Unexpectedly, however, Hare’s play manages to render Wilde, who wrote many allusions to gay relationships into his works, more chaste than anyone else onstage. Instead he’s painted as the long-suffering ‘fall guy’ for the man he loves – probably because at the time it was written (The Will and Grace era of LGBTQIA media acceptance) the only good or redeemable homosexual character was a celibate one – or one that we, at least, were not allowed to perceive as truly sexual (and therefore a sexual deviant).
It’s also a play singularly lacking in the charm, wit, and concise drama one associates with the best of Wilde’s works. Instead, it often feels laborious – even turgid.
We open with Wilde (played here by Josh Quong Tart) holed up in the Cadogan, his arrest imminent and a mob of reporters closing in. Flanked by trusted friend and ex-partner Robbie Ross (Simon London) and current paramour (and ostensible soul mate) Bosie (Hayden Maher), Wilde has a decision to make: go to gaol, or go on the run. Audiences with more than a passing knowledge of Wilde or The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his poem about his prison experiences, may feel trapped in a tedious act that considers these options over and over before reaching the inevitable. The cycle is shattered only by a shrieking Bosie whenever he is offended, which is often. If Wilde is Will and Grace’s Will Truman in Hare’s play, then Bosie (who was basically the worst) is the Jack McFarland – flamboyantly emotional, manipulative, and blessed with a string of lovers to which he is never committed.
Directed by Iain Sinclair (a generally astute director – his Of Mice and Men swept the 2015 Sydney Theatre Awards) this production feels arresting in moments, certainly, but overbearing; it lacks Sinclair’s trademark nuance. His actors turn in solid, if frustratingly generic, performances; they’re more vessels for Hare’s words than fully-realised characters.
Hare’s attempts to mimic Wilde’s erudition and wit are generally poor, and the structure of the play contains none of Wilde’s cleverness; the first act errs towards tedious, and the second throws around too many ideas without really investigating any of them. Hare can’t decide which facet of Wilde’s exiled life to focus on, so he bombards us with several events and actions: there’s the Italian fisherman (David Soncin) Bosie has brought home to play with, an example of Bosie’s betrayal and a focus for Wilde’s ponderings; Wilde’s indigence; Bosie’s mother’s offer of money and restored status if her son returns home and engages in heterosexual life and relationships; Bosie’s declining writing career; Wilde’s contentious relationship with his wife and children; a visit from old friend Robbie; Wilde’s poor health after his experience in prison; and a passionate argument for the purity and perfection of love between two men.
In 1998, the idea that same sex relationships can be as loving as heterosexual couplings was still a radical one for mainstream audiences. In 2017, it’s a given – and also a bit patronising: this audience doesn’t need convincing that same-sex love is lovely, or even divine.
There’s plenty of nudity onstage, which for the most part the story seems to call for – but occasionally seems exploitative. For example in the play’s opening scene, during which a waiter and maid indulge in a sexcapade in Wilde’s hotel room (which they’re meant to be cleaning), the actress is fully nude for the majority of the scene. Not only is there no apparent narrative or dramatic need for this, but her part has very few lines, all of which refer to an appetite for either sex or money; this reductive representation of a woman, which treats her body as an object and her nakedness as a form of shock value or entertainment, is classic ‘male gaze’ stuff. Similarly – though to a lesser extent – the nudity of Galileo (Bosie’s fisherman friend) for the majority of his time on stage in the second act feels more exploitative than dramatically necessary.
Hare seems determined to convince the audience that Wilde’s docile exile after his stay in prison, and the subsequent end of his writing career, was not born from cowardice but from self-preservation. Perhaps for straight audiences the delineation between ‘cowardice’ and ‘coping’ for queer people is not clear, but for a production staged just a few blocks away from Sydney’s gay bar and club scene, and branded for queer audiences as part of Australia’s biggest gay festival, this dramatic thesis, upon which the bulk of the play relies, seems out of touch.
Redline Productions, who program the Old Fitz annual season, have made a commitment to showcase more points of view on stage this year – the company has achieved or surpassed gender parity in terms of its writers and its directors for the year – and is slowly looking outside its common style (men, their identities, and their relationship to power in all its forms) to tell new stories. Their commitment to queer storytelling via Mardi Gras is commendable and a good step forward. But this play was a bad choice, and the production is disappointing.