THE JUDAS KISS
"Let England," wrote Lord Alfred Douglas in 1937, "bear all responsibility for what she did to Oscar," and it can at least be said that we have not borne our responsibility in the one thing Wilde would have most dreaded, silence. At this point I had better declare several interests that you may feel could influence my judgment of David Hare's The Judas Kiss, recently at the Playhouse (now on Broadway at the Broadhurst), certainly the best and most intriguing new play of the year thus far.
I, quite literally, owe my life to Wilde; my father Robert was the first actor ever to play him onstage and (22 years later) screen, and he only met my mother because she happened to be the sister of the actor who was his first Alfred Douglas. As my father made his name in the role back in 1936, and got to Hollywood on the strength of it, there was a lot of Wilde around my childhood my father's lifelong best friend was one of the two Stokes brothers who wrote the first-ever Wilde play, one considered so scandalous that it could only ever be performed over here in club theatres before the war. Then again, I am one of about 200 authors to have published Wilde biographies in the years before Ellman made the task unnecessary, so I come to the Hare piece with enough personal and professional baggage to daunt a weight lifter.
But enough already of the background; what Hare has done brilliantly is to escape the usual plod through Oscar's life and trials from birth to the last days of illness in Paris; instead, he has taken just two key moments from the biographies, the two that still cause the most debate among the experts. Hare's first act, thus, takes place entirely at the Cadogan Hotel on the afternoon of the conclusion of the first trial, when Wilde's friends, and indeed even the authorities, were eager for him to catch the boat train to Paris and thereby avoid arrest.
For the second act, only two years later, Wilde is out of prison, back with his beloved 'Bosie' Douglas and living in Neapolitan penury, while the few who still cared about them tried frantically and ultimately triumphantly to bribe them apart.
Hare has always been at his best writing about betrayal and unrequited love; in the public forum, Racing Demon and Murmuring Judges and Absence of War were, respectively, about the betrayal of the Church of England, the local judicial system and (all too topically still) the old Labour Party. Similarly, his last two plays, Skylight and Amy's View, and much earlier Plenty and Secret Rapture, have been about people who loved not wisely but too well, and who ended up alone because of their romantic obsessions.
The Judas Kiss neatly combines all these themes and more; on one level it is about a love that spoke its name rather too loudly for late Victorian sensibilities. If Oscar had an abiding sin, it was not that of homosexuality but of the self-publicizing huckster; yet on many of its deeper levels the play is about guilt and arrogance and revenge, and above all else it is about a man who simply could not make up his mind to catch a train or abandon forever the lover who had landed him in Reading Gaol. Richard Eyre's production is characteristically steady and subtle and brings Liam Neeson back onstage for the first time since Broadway's Anna Christie.
TWO FROM BECKETT
With the Old Vic shuttered and for sale, Peter Hall (courageously aided by the impresario Bill Kenwright) has had to move his company to the Piccadilly, a vastly less welcoming space where a season that includes Judi Dench in Filumena, Jemma Redgrave as Major Barbara and Elaine Paige in The Misanthrope gets off to a low-key start with a revival of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which at the Vic last summer starred Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard.
Now we get Julian Glover and Alan Dobie as the Irish vaudeville tramps awaiting the never-to-be-seen Godot, and though this is still an immensely strong and intelligent revival, something of the charisma of the original is lacking. The greatness of Godot (originally uncovered by Hall in a much-abused 1955 staging) is the way it stares into the void and still finds a few bleak laughs down there, and we now get an intriguing chance to compare it with Krapp's Last Tape, which Edward Petherbridge is playing and co-directing for a very few performances in the Barbican pit.
Written eight years after Godot for Patrick Magee, and so in English rather than French, this is an infinitely shorter and still bleaker account of an old man and a tape recorder, having to choose between the pain of the present and the still greater pain of the spooling past. Though he has none of the throaty resonance of Magee, Petherbridge manages an altogether more fey and theatrical figure, none the less haunting for that.
-- By Sheridan Morley