Category: Archive

Wilde things

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE JUDAS KISS, by David Hare. Directed by Richard Eyre. Starring Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander. At the Broadhurst Theatre.

David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss,” which closed out the official Broadway season a couple of weeks ago, stands as one of the most peculiar ventures within recent theater memory: a star vehicle, created for no apparent reason other than to showcase the abilities of the central performer, in which, in the end, the actor whose name is above the title is delivering a bizarrely uninvolved, uninvested, almost fatally distanced performance.

The British playwright’s rendering of the story of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the boy the great Dublin-born writer loved too unwisely and far too recklessly, wouldn’t exist were it not for the presence on the stage of international celebrity of Liam Neeson, which doesn’t begin to insure that the gifted and popular actor, despite honorable intentions and a full measure of courage, hasn’t managed to get himself grievously miscast.

Uncommitted as Neeson seems to a role for which he appears suited only in terms of height, his inherent wrongness is minuscule compared to that of Tom Hollander, the tiny hand-waver cast as Lord Alfred, better known to Wilde and to literature by his nickname, “Bosie.” If the Ballymeena-born Neeson were equipped with a leash, the unavoidable impression would be that the author of “The Importance of Being Earnest” had somehow bonded with a talking monkey.

The story of Oscar Wilde, son of a Dublin surgeon and his free-thinking wife, a poet and essayist who wrote under the name Speranza, has long exerted a strong attraction in the public mind, but never more powerful a pull than at the present moment, with two plays on the subject running in Manhattan, as well as a mainly admirable new film, with Stephen Fry following Robert Morley and Peter Finch, the stars of a pair of film biographies of the writer, both released in 1960.

Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo

Subscribe to one of our great value packages.

Hare’s version of the tragic tale begins on a single day in 1895, when Wilde, ensconced in London’s Cadogan Hotel on the day of the dismissal of his ill-advised defamation suit against Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, must decide whether to flee to exile in France or remain in England, where he will almost certainly be prosecuted for gross indecency. The details of Act One are largely available in the public records and journals of the period .

Act Two of “The Judas Kiss” is set yet again on a single day but this time in 1897, after Wilde’s jail term had been served and he had, after being freed, exiled himself to Europe, where he would die at the turning of the century.

The fine points of Wilde’s life in France and Italy are less fully documented, beyond the fact that Bosie came and went, and that the writer was visited by Robert Ross, his first lover and a loyal friend to the end, a role sturdily played by Peter Capaldi.

The paucity of hard fact behind behind the play’s closing scenes serves to liberate the playwright, and, for the most part, he rises to the challenge.

Ross, in Hare’s version, is sent to Italy by Wilde’s estranged wife, Constance Lloyd, conveying the ultimatum that, unless the writer promises not to see Bosie, she will terminate the allowance on which he has been living in a state approaching outright penury.

Hare depicts the declining Oscar as something of a voyeur, slumped in a battered wicker chair as Bosie and a local fisherman lie naked in bed after a long night and day of sex, in full view of the shattered writer.

There is about “The Judas Kiss” something both opportunistic and slightly sleazy, extending well beyond the well-publicized nudity in the second act. (The fisherman is named Galileo, for no evident reason other than that it enables Wilde to speculate on the intensity of the passion he had observed. “Saw stars, did you?” he asked Bosie and his partner).

The play opens with a gratuitous sex act graphically simulated by two members of the Cadogan serving staff, a maid, played by Stina Nielsen, and a waiter, played by Alex Walkinshaw. What Hare is saying, apparently, is that sex was flagrantly present just below the rigid surface of Victorian morality.

Nevertheless, the play’s first scene plays like a sketch from the late Kenneth Tynan’s notorious sex revue, “O Calcutta!” and Hare follows through with a moment in which the waiter exposes himself to the head of the serving staff, played by Richard Clarke, after the latter has promised to “discipline” him, and arranges a meeting belowstairs with that goal in mind.

This inauspicious beginning severely undercuts whatever serious intention Hare may have had in mind, and nothing that follows, certainly nothing in Act One, does much to repair the damage done by the tackiness with which the playwright strives to make what appears to be his point.

Once Wilde has relocated to Italy, things improve somewhat, since Hare is forced to engage in some creative speculation, and, under pressure, comes up with a few passages which breathe life into Neeson’s otherwise peculiarly desultory performance.

Director Richard Eyre, who staged the play in its brief London tryout a few weeks prior to the transfer to the Broadhurst Theatre, seems to have structured into the production and odd lassitude that hobbles Neeson’s performance. The huge actor spends much of the first act in a chair at one corner of the stage or seated at a serving table directly across the playing space. In very nearly all of the play’s second half, he occupies that wicker chair, shrouded in a flowery piano shawl, while Bosie and Galileo Masconi, played by Daniel Serafini-Sauli, cavort on a bed resembling an army cot.

The two sets provided by Cork-born designer Bob Crowley, one of the finest scenic artists currently working in the theater, have their own quotient of strangeness. The hotel room of Act One, while stylized in its dimensions and in the amount of swagged fabric it deploys, is at least recognizable as a posh Cadogan suite of Wilder’s period.

In the Naples of the play’s second half, Crowley ventures into another country entirely, producing a sunlit, desert-like expanse which seems pitched somewhere between an interior and an exterior, perhaps an impressionistic pensione sleeping porch.

Overall, there is a very odd inertness about “The Judas Kiss.” Ross and Bosie come and go, delivering their messages, stating their generally unwavering points of view, wringing their hands in frustration at Wilde’s intractability. Even if most of the people who see the play didn’t already know the outcome of the writer’s dilemma, there never seems to be very much at stake in playwright Hare’s treatment of the tale.

The suspicion nags that “The Judas Kiss” is very probably, on some level, a commission job for which the participants’ initial enthusiasm faded before the task was accomplished. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if tall, lumbering Liam Neeson, notoriously heterosexual, returned to the stage to play literature’s most notorious invert, the tall, pudgy, doomed Oscar Wilde? Well, yes. But also, in the end, no.

The most poignant aspect of Wilde’s story has always been, and remains, the fact that Lord Alfred Douglas sacrificed one of the greatest writers in the English language on the altar of the loathing he felt for his own father, Queensberry. The greater tragedy, of course, is that, offered the opportunity of at least a partial salvation by flight from London, the confused, beleaguered giant opted to remain and be tried, jailed, disgraced and ultimately destroyed.

On a vastly more modest scale there is a kind of tragic element in the irony that a writer as good as David Hare, working with a director as solid as Richard Eyre and a star as charismatic as Liam Neeson normally is, could approach a story possessing the potency of the story of Oscar Wilde and come up with anything as lacking in genuine urgency or real feeling as “The Judas Kiss.”

For a review of the movie “Wilde” click here

For a review of the play “Gross Indecency,” click here

For more information on Oscar Wilde, click here

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese