Mockingbird Theatre continue to give us memorable text-on-stage productions of the plays that we wish we’d seen the original productions of, and give performers the chance to play roles that they’ve dreamed of. At Theatre Works this week, they’re giving us The Judas Kiss: David Hare’s imagining of the behind-doors conversations in a hotel before Wilde’s arrest for gross indecency and in Naples after his release from gaol and not long before his impoverised death.
The first production, 1998, Sir David (The Blue Room, Via Dolorosa, The Hours) described as “deeply unsatisfactory” in a 2013 interview in The Guardian. He said it went “off kilter ” as he “wanted to smash every cliche about Wilde” and by casting “Ireland’s most famous heterosexual as Wilde, we were possibly trying to sail away from stereotypes a little too far”. Liam Neeson was Wilde and Tom Hollander was his lover and downfall Bosie, Sir Alfred Douglas. No matter how off kilter, I wish I’d seen it.
In 1999, Belvoir toured Neil Armfield’s production in Australia (with Billie Brown as Wilde) and Armfield went to London in 2012 to direct a much more successful UK version (with Rupert Everett as Wilde).
Mockingbird’s founder, Chris Baldock, is our Wilde. At first, I wanted him to stop being an idealised impression of witty Wilde – to be more off kilter – but as Wilde let his public persona drop behind the closed hotel doors, Baldock’s performance developed into something far more complex and fascinating. It’s clearly a role he’s always wanted to play and his years of preparation are felt on the stage.
The rest of the cast (Nigel Langley, Oliver Coleman, Zak Zavod, Laurent Murtagh, Soren Jensen and Nores Cerfeda) all bring a personal understanding and empathy to their characters, which makes for heartfelt – if, at times, uneven – performances. And all occasionally stumble over the naturalism problem of how to stand and listen or disappear into the background.
Also not helping is a set that looks like a suburban amateur company’s period-drama set used since the 1950s and finally left out for hard rubbish. Resources, demands of the text and the spacious Theatre Works stage are all understood, but it’s a distraction and undermines the quality of the rest of the production.
Still, director Jason Cavanagh, with assistant director Celeste Cody, bring a world that’s true to the (long) text while creating a curiosity about Wilde and a wish that he’d made different choices. I’d like to have seen more of the love between Wilde and Bosie as, in this play, it’s this love (destructive, obsessive or unseen by anyone but the two of them) that governs all of Wilde’s decisions and it would help to support his choices rather than wanting him to slap Bosie and run off with Robbie. And given the play opens with a nude and lusty boy-girl sex scene, there’s an expectation that sex is going to play a much bigger part in the story.
The Judas Kiss has its off kilter moments, but they don’t knock it too far off balance and, as the chances of seeing this play in the near future are slim, it’s well worth seeing.