The Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss is deliberately written against type. The stage directions describe him as “solid, tall and fleshy” and “not at all the pansy of legend.” The signature wit is slightly dulled, though when it surfaces it does so with acidity; here his satire is meant to sting rather than charm. “In England the preacher says prayers on the scaffold,” Wilde tells Bosie (Charlie Rowe), his voice dripping with urbanity, “Then straight after he dines with the hangman.” The wounds behind the jokes are much closer to the surface.
There are the elements here of a great, reserved tragedy. Mr. Hare has restricted the action to two relatively quiet scenes: one in 1895, when Wilde decided to remain in England rather than flee the charges of gross indecency, the other in 1897, after he has been released from prison and reunited with Bosie in Naples. The abandonment of Wilde by Bosie (or Lord Alfred Douglas) is notorious and offers Wilde lines like this: “Christ is betrayed by Judas, who is almost a stranger. Judas is the man he doesn’t know well. It would be artistically truer if he were betrayed by John. Because John is the man he loves most.”
But far too much of the play slips into shrill melodrama, a genre unbefitting Wilde. Bosie, in particular, is prone to long, defensive speeches: “You will be known forever as the man who was ashamed to admit his own nature!” he says in a cutesy nod to the present. “You will be known forever as the man who was ashamed to admit his own nature! Your plays will be forgotten. They will not be played. Because you lacked courage.” The audience may feel smarter than Bosie for his inaccurate prediction but it will feel little else, especially when confronted with Mr. Rowe’s flat and unmoving performance. Ultimately, we are left asking, like Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross (Cal MacAninich), “What does this man have?”
Though Mr. Everett is controlled enough to translate Wilde’s puckish humor into bitterness, he cannot rehabilitate a script that is tonally inappropriate and employs moralizing to mask emotional vacancy. Mr. Hare wrote in an introduction to The Judas Kiss that “the true subject of my play is not Wilde, but love; not Bosie, but betrayal.” When the kiss finally does come, I found no evidence of either.