David Hare's play The Judas Kiss dips into the most controversial years of playwright and poet Oscar Wilde's life, as his success began to be eclipsed by accusations about his homosexuality. We eavesdrop on the final, terse conversations before he is arrested for gross indecency in Chelsea's Cadogan hotel in the first act, while the second act imagines the end of his brief reconciliation with his troublesome lover Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas in Capri. After a badly-received run in the West End in 1998, the current cast has transferred from a popular run at the Hampstead Theatre to the inhospitably chilly Duke of York's.
The usually rakish Rupert Everett is utterly transformed into a jowly, fussy, effeminate Wilde. His speeches are focused and witty but the characterisation feel simplistic sometimes - the few glimpses we get of the desperation and regret beneath the wit are brief and insubstantial. David Hare's told the Guardian last weekend that the original 1998 casting of Liam Neeson - "Ireland's most famous heterosexual" - to avoid camp clichés was a mistake and this is certainly a more familiar Oscar Wilde.
The rhythm of the first act feels a little stilted. The audience listen acutely for some Wilde witticisms and many in the stalls seemed to laugh, nervously perhaps, at the wrong moments. The second half flows more naturally, with Wilde sadder and more resigned and Bosie more exasperating than ever. Freddie Fox gives a gloriously cocky performance as the pouting, narcissistic Bosie, the perfectly-sculpted porcelain mummy's boy who wields such baffling power over the once-great Wilde. Hare's deft dialogue allows Bosie to set himself up as a spoiled, deluded creature. The pair's chemistry is striking; the first 'Judas kiss' in Act One, when Everett pulls Fox into his lap, is a magnetic moment. Central School of Speech and Drama graduates Ben Hardy and Tom Colley add some confident full-frontal nudity as hotel porter Arthur and Italian stallion Galileo, while Cal Macaninch doesn't quite feel fully fleshed-out as Wilde's disapproving former lover Robbie Ross.
The visual contrast between the two acts of the play is arresting: dark, damask, traditional British repression dominate the first half (which starts with two servants' naked passion which is quickly interrupted and concealed) when the dialogue is full of unspoken thoughts and euphemisms, while the Capri set is airy and open with light fabric draped to give a Pre-Raphaelite effect, the beautiful Bosie draped classically in a sheet and his lover Galileo entirely nude. Wilde remains swaddled and largely stationary throughout both, while his companions scurry around discussing his fate.
Wilde's grandson writes in the programme that if he could ask his grandfather one question it would be 'Why on earth did you do it?' Hare's play does little to answer this question, though it hangs over the facts as you read them and is reiterated by Bosie and Ross in the dialogue. The Judas Kiss is a somewhat unsatisfying glimpse into Wilde's relationship with Bosie and the effect of the scandal on life; it keeps his decisions as mysterious as ever but breathes some life into his closest relationships - a bittersweet snapshot of a destructive and passionate relationship.