Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Judas Kiss

I am not a critic.  What I write is commentary.  Stories about the way the arts, life, love and London touch me. 

Consequently I want to say I was so deeply affected by The Judas Kiss at the Duke of York’s Theatre last week that it has stayed with me.  Images and quotes run repeatedly through my mind, and I’m left with not just a memory of an incredible night in the theatre (directed and designed by two Aussies, Neil Armfield and Dale Ferguson)… but a mingled sense of gratitude and sadness that the world still celebrates the great intellect and wit of Oscar Wilde while continuing to tolerate the hypocrisy and bigotry which led to his downfall. 

The play, and the life upon which it is based, is so rich in talent and resonance that you are drawn into a world where your mind and heart are utterly transfixed.  You feel every morsel of love and longing between Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Robert Ross, and his absent children and wife, Constance… you ache at the prospect that Ross cannot protect his great friend from the selfish ambitions of the beautiful but spoilt boy known as Bosie… and you wonder endlessly as to why why why Wilde allowed himself to be used as an instrument in a public family brawl when, as a man and artist, he possessed more intellectual rigour and compassion in his little finger than the majority of the Douglas family or the Marquis of Queensbury put together.
Your experience in the theatre is profoundly sad and profoundly satisfying.  You will laugh and you will cry in equal measure. You will be entertained but uncomfortable about the rough pairing of wit and betrayal.  And you will be challenged to reflect on the world in which we live – on the power and privilege of wealth and class; on the sacrificial tendencies of love; on the nature of trust…

Of course Wilde would not be particularly surprised by this cruel state of affairs – and I refer to judgemental intolerance over matters beginning but scarcely ending with homosexuality – for his gift and his scourge was that he could truly see, articulate and lampoon human frailties from the amusing peccadillo to the tragically destructive. In this Wilde has been fairly compared to Shakespeare, though it would seem the Irishman didn’t share the Bard’s instincts for self-preservation or political manoeuvring.  The insightful contemporary playwright, David Hare, suggests the artist he greatly admired was ultimately damned by his own sharp sense of truth and honour, his inability to run and hide, an innate willingness to trust the people he loved, and a gift of vision and human understanding which, brutally, allowed him to see too clearly what was most likely coming his way so that he was pressed to the ground with weighty fatalism.

In Neil Armfield’s impeccable production (transferred to the West End from the Hampstead Theatre, after a production by Armfield at Belvoir Street in Sydney), Rupert Everett gives us an emotional but resigned Oscar Wilde, waiting for his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel, then waiting to be abandoned in Naples by the man for whom he gave up everything.  And the element which creates the most poignancy is Wilde’s dignity – dignity and intellectual power in the face of financial, physical and emotional ruin, in the face of betrayal and unenlightened denial, even in spite of the cruellest blow of all… the loss of his literary voice… the silencing of him as a writer.  As portrayed by Everett this dignity and poise is so admirable yet heartbreaking, that the audience must suppress a collective urge to jump on stage and strangle Boise for sneaking into his pocket the last two quid from the sideboard.  We want revenge - to turn back time and reinstate Oscar Wilde to his rightful place in a more respectful and tolerant world. 

Some might feel Wilde’s lack of action or fight against his decline makes him too passive to be sympathetic.  Some have little patience for the (seeming) contradiction between his robust frankness and a reluctance to publically declare his sexual preferences.  Some might have liked Everett to vary the tone of his performance on occasion so that the glittering and light-hearted aspects of Wilde’s sartorial mirth were brought more to mind – raising the trajectory, if you like, on the arc through which he’ll fall.  Some remain uncomfortable about Everett’s polemical off-stage views about gay fatherhood.

Yet such is Hare’s brilliance - and the perfectly balanced presentation of an array of social dynamics by a cast and creative team without a single weak link - that instead of stocking minor criticisms audiences are pressed to take on board concepts which can never be over-pondered: who are the friends in our lives who we can trust to stand by us in a storm?; can we reconcile ourselves to the prospect of betrayal because when one loves with a whole heart that is inevitably the risk?; at what point does love make a fool of us?; can a severe loss of trust be salvaged?; do we allow ‘holier-than-thou’ attitudes to distort our view of the actions and character of others?; are we comfortable with a society who insists upon penance and conformity as well as punishment?; and how often, in large and small ways, individually and collectively, do we control or condemn others because they simply want to live their life a different way?    

Wilde made the English upper classes uncomfortable about their foibles.  They enjoyed his diversions and smiled at his wit, they socialised with him such that on the surface all appeared well, but they never really thought of him as an equal for at core they were affronted by his freedom, flamboyance and bohemian sensibilities.  So when opportunity arose for them to go after him, the agenda and vehemence was poisoned and enlarged by previous resentment.  It gets one thinking: how often do one’s secret complaints feed into present arguments?  How often do earlier judgements distort one’s ability to assess fairly?  How often does society punish a person, a company, a government, a media organisation for sins which it decides should have been punished earlier?   There is good reason for the law known as Double Jeopardy but in the to and fro of our daily lives how often do we keep a person on trial for the same offence - harbouring anger or jealousies until there is a better opportunity to give them free reign?

When seen from this viewpoint it is nothing short of vicious.  For, it isn’t just politics and 'the establishment' which sent Oscar Wilde down, it is human imperfection and moralistic intolerance.   These questions and more are posed during The Judas Kiss.  And I challenge anyone in the house not to be deeply moved when Boise steps up to Oscar to give a farewell kiss on the cheek.  It is then we realise Wilde has been trapped in the Garden of Gethsemane and that only now will he be released – albeit from one torment to another.  He pads across the room, weakened by two years in prison and the pain of exile, poverty and ignominy, and with a clarity which makes the audience, if not Boise, ache for forgiveness, he tells the man he has loved like no other: (I paraphrase) that really Christ should have received the kiss not from Judas, but from the disciple he dearly loved, from young John, for in that there was the ultimate betrayal. 

We can hurt those who have loved and trusted us most.  In that there is great responsibility.