Oscar Wilde’s writing may be well known, but for some, his lascivious and scandal-filled past is less renowned. David Hare invites us into that past in The Judas Kiss, asking us to consider how Wilde’s slew of young lovers led to his persecution and ultimate exile from a society that denounced homosexuality as illegal, deviant behaviour.
The first half takes place in 1895, in the hotel room in which Wilde was eventually captured by police, and taken to court on a charge of gross indecency. The tension builds as Wilde’s closest friend Robert Ross (a likeable Simon London) urges him to flee to France, while his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie, a pandering yet volatile Hayden Maher) begs him to stay. Wilde (Josh Quong Tart), paralysed by the choice, chooses inaction instead.
While the details it reveals are compelling, particularly for those unfamiliar with Wilde’s past, Red Line Production’s The Judas Kiss, directed by Iain Sinclair as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras program, underwhelms.
We are privy to the quarrels and discontents within the different relationships: Ross’ jealousy of Bosie; Bosie’s disdain for Ross; and a floundering Wilde caught in the middle. And while these interpersonal connections are fascinating in themselves, the production’s uneven pacing often allows heated arguments to explode without gradual escalation; we’re left with a tableaux of actors yelling frequently for little discernable reason. It’s difficult to invest in a conflict that takes these kind of shortcuts.
Though we are confined to a hotel room for the first act, the events outside – a trial, the looming threat of imprisonment, and the downfall of a great artist’s reputation – should echo ominously within. Yet it never feels that way, as these larger proceedings often feel like background noise to the more accentuated conflicts between the characters. And Wilde’s plight begs little sympathy when he treats it with such apathy himself, even if it is feigned for his friend and lover’s benefit. His inaction swiftly becomes our ennui.
Jonathan Hindmarsh’s lavish hotel set is impressively extravagant for the Old Fitz’s small stage, but it only crowds the scenes further with oppressive red curtains. It contrasts strikingly to the almost bare white stage for the second act in Naples mirroring Wilde’s destitution during his exile with its barrenness.
Wilde’s lover Bosie, Maher, is vain and self-important in the first act, which grows into a more cruel and dismissive performance in the second. While Quong Tart lures our interest as the renowned writer, it is easy to grow frustrated at his core passivity. The only character who consistently begs sympathy throughout is London’s Ross; he is equal parts a wounded ex lover and a determined friend fighting to protect Wilde – his kindness wins our support amongst the other, more fickle characters.
Hare’s script is clunky and not as compelling as it could be; the stakes it presents never feel as high as they should as it is ultimately stifled by Iain Sinclair’s heavy-handed direction in the first act, with its languid pace. In the second act, Sinclair’s direction is more focused, despite some confrontations, such as the final moment between Bosie and Wilde, when Bosie announces his intentions to leave, lacking their full gravitas. But that’s not entirely his fault; by then the script has given itself over to long-winded, redundant speeches that don’t reach their full, desired impact.
Despite its curious exploration of a famous author’s infamous downfall, The Judas Kiss is an uninspired contribution to the Mardi Gras season. For those unfamiliar with Wilde’s past it offers some intrigue, but beyond that it falls short of ever truly captivating, and definitely does not stand out as an exciting, forward thinking piece in this Mardi Gras season.