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Paulanne Simmons

“The Judas Kiss,” a Victorian Tragedy

The Judas Kiss
Directed by Neil Armfield
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Opened May 17, 2016
Tickets start at $30 (weeknights), $35 (weekends) (718) 636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Closes June 12, 2016
Reviewed By Paulanne Simmons May 14, 2016


Toward the end of “The Judas Kiss,” David Hare’s searing play about Oscar Wilde, the defeated and destroyed aesthete and writer, tells his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, the Gospels have it wrong. John, the disciple closest to Jesus, should have been the one to betray him, not Judas who barely knew him at all. Indeed, as the current revival at BAM proves, the “unkindest cut” does come from those we love the best.

Although anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s life knows all about his beloved Bosie’s perfidy, in the play, it’s not until Bosie (Charlie Rowe) has taken up with Galileo (Tom Colley) a Neapolitan fisherman whom Wilde resentfully tolerates, that Wilde fully sees the light. By this time Wilde has allowed Bosie to convince him to stay in London and stand trial for sodomy rather than escape to France, spent two years in jail and suffered financial ruin.

If Wilde’s foolhardiness makes him a difficult hero in real life, he is no less inconvenient as the play’s protagonist. Nevertheless, Rupert Everett, under Neil Armfield’s direction, takes on the role with so much skill and subtlety it’s hard not to sympathize with Wilde even as we shake our heads and ask, “really?” In addition to Wilde and Bosie, the third non-fictional character in the play is Wilde’s friend and first male lover, Robert Ross (the excellent Cal MacAninch), the voice or reason and the narcissistic and petulant Bosie’s foil.

But in many ways it is the fictional characters, the uncouth Galileo, the hotel manager Sandy Moffatt (Alister Cameron) and two members of the hotel staff, Arthur Wellesley (Elliot Balchin) and Phoebe Cane (Jessie Hills), who underline what might be the most important theme in the play: the supremacy of the aristocracy, who pampered by their lower class servants and protected by their wealth and their name, sail unharmed through even the most violent of storms.

The difference between life with and without money is highlighted in Dale Ferguson’s sets for act one (a well-appointed room at the Cadogen Hoel) and act two (a rat-infested hovel outside Naples). In act one, Wilde is still waited on by the obsequious staff while he decides whether he should stay in London and fight, as Bosie importunes, or take flight as Ross advises. In act two Wilde must figure out whether it’s better to live in poverty with Bosie (and perhaps the fisherman or another like him) or take Ross’s advice and leave Bosie so Constance, Wilde’s wife, will give him the funds he desperately needs and allow him to see his children, whom he sorely misses.

But in both sets, undercurrents of sexuality are made manifest. The comfortable Victorian chamber is a mess, as Arthur and Phoebe are warming the unmade bed in a heated tryst before putting the room in order. And the dismal quarters of act two are decorated with a single sheet descending from the ceiling.This seemingly whimsical touch makes the room look much like an artist’s studio, an impression driven home by the presence of Galileo, who, like an artist’s model, poses nude throughout most of act two.

Clearly sex and class play equal parts in this tragedy. Bosie’s royal ancestry always give him the upper hand as the somewhat too eager Rowe struts around both rooms with a perpetually limp wrist. But is Wilde a victim or his own desire, Bosie’s callow selfishness or English snobbery? The uncertainly of the answer is one of this production’s greatest gifts.


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