David Hare’s portrayal of the Irish playwright focuses on two episodes. In the first, Wilde is holed up in the Cadogan Hotel following his prosecution for sodomy and “gross indecency” in 1895. He has the chance to flee arrest, and is encouraged to run away to France by his life-long friend and former lover, Robbie Ross. But Wilde is gripped by inaction, shown as a product of fear, insecurity, defiance and love in Everett’s performance. The more static second half sees Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (nickname: Bosie) living in Naples two years later. Oscar’s wife Constance is threatening to divorce him, and the families of both men are threatening to cut off their funds.
In the earlier scenes, Everett’s larger-than-life, fat-suited Wilde powers around the stage. He swings from railing against English manners and native xenophobia, to attempts to restore his own peculiar normality, demanding lobster for lunch (cue some fantastic on-stage cookery), to sudden self-pitying tears at the kindness of the hotel staff. Later, Wilde seems broken by prison, visibly shrunken and refusing to move for much of the second half. His delight at the infrequent visitors (Tom Colley plays a splendidly naked Italian; Cal MacAninch’s loyal Ross returns but struggles to help) further suggests Wilde has moved from one type of prison to another.
Hare’s writing flickers with the compressed, bitter wit of one of London’s most celebrated personalities; Everett dandily dispensing a bon mot here and an aphorism there. As a counterpoint, Freddie Fox’s Bosie is petulant, demanding and hugely unlikable. Yet Fox manages to give his repellent character some persuasive powers, lending weight to the final betrayal.
The Judas Kiss is a diptych riddled with doubles and duplicity. “Only when we love do we see the true person…Love is not the illusion. Life is,” intones Wilde towards the end – but Everett’s portrayal is slippery enough to make us doubt even as his hero is attempting to be truthful. Just as you think writer Hare is suggesting unconditional love is at the root of Wilde’s downfall, director Armfield’s production turns again. Is Wilde a contrary individualist or a tragic, romantic victim? This confident cast and crew leave it up to you to decide.