In the light of the civil rights movements of the last five decades, the various ways to interpret the facts of Oscar Wilde’s life seem almost kaleidoscopic. Even in the two decades since David Hare wrote The Judas Kiss, our perspectives on queer rights have moved so dramatically that material of this age frequently jars current sensibilities. Perhaps because of its subject matter, but probably more because of Hare’s focus on the people he was writing about, the play doesn’t suffer from any such awkwardness.
The first act is encountered in a single scene in which Wilde has the opportunity to flee England and escape arrest for gross indecency. Those who hold influence over him try to persuade him in different directions before it is too late, and the wordy dialogue presents a number of reasons for him to stay or to go. Whether Wilde allowed the police to arrest him in a misguided belief that he would never be incarcerated, or in a rather premature expression of gay pride, his courageous foolhardiness shines through brilliantly.
And it is this courageous foolhardiness that I find most inspiring about the Oscar Wilde presented in this production.
David Hare’s heavily verbose script is lightened by inspired direction from Karina Hudson (with the support of Alexandra Pelvin). Despite the weight of words Hare burdens the actors with, each of the three central characters shine through with a life and vivacity that is rare with such a piece.
What is perhaps most surprising is to see the conflicts that currently play out within the queer community about how we engage with the societies we live in, playing out in a story twelve decades old. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
For me at least, this was a deeply moving production of a carefully constructed play. It honours Wilde’s memory while also recognising his humanity, and you can’t ask for more than that.