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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Wilde Again

L-R: Charlie Row, Rupert Everett, Cal MacAninch. Photo: Johan Persson
By Brian Scott Lipton

Life is full of second chances, even if we don’t always make the most of them. Take the case of the great Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde, whose reputation never quite recovered after his ill-conceived love affair with the young poet, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Or, conversely, take the renowned British playwright David Hare, whose very play on that subject, The Judas Kiss, received tepid reviews on Broadway in 1998, but which has been since revived to glorious reviews by director Neil Armfield and star Rupert Everett (whom the UK Telegraph says “was born to play Wilde”). This acclaimed production now comes to the BAM Harvey from May 11 through June 12. For BAMbill, I recently spoke to Hare about what inspired the work and what has changed over the past two decades.

What was your original inspiration for writing The Judas Kiss?

I’d admired Wilde since I was 10 years old. I tried to study him at university, but I was told by my Cambridge English literature supervisor that Wilde was not serious, and that if I wrote my final year dissertation on him, I would be a laughing stock. I ignored the advice. I never wanted to write biographical plays but I had always been fascinated by the question of why Wilde turned down the opportunity to run away and avoid prosecution. But I also loved the period of his life after prison when, in exile and with apparent perversity, he returned to the lover who had precipitated his downfall. I decided that making a play out of these two separate, apparently incomprehensible actions would be exciting.

Many of your plays deal with outsiders, activists, and artists—all of which describe Oscar Wilde. How do you feel The Judas Kiss fits into your oeuvre?

I was first drawn to Wilde by his insistence that morality does not consist of telling others what to do, it’s what you do yourself. This is my own view. If you think of all the greatest women and men in history, they illuminate by example, not by instruction. They keep their noses out of other peoples’ business. They don’t judge others, they judge themselves.

What kind of research did you undertake before writing the play?

Wilde is not just a great writer, but he is the inspiration for great writing in others. There are loads of good books about him, most especially those by his grandson Merlin Holland. But remember, my play dramatizes two events which happened behind closed doors, so finally I depend on imagination, not research.

Rupert Everett.
How long did it take to write the play?

The play was first done in London in 1998. I spruced it up a bit for Broadway later that spring. The first act was very difficult to write because it contains so much information which I was trying to convey painlessly. But the second act wrote itself.

In an age where homosexuality is not a crime in many countries, and legalized gay marriage is spreading across the world, what relevance do you feel the play has in 2016?

Honestly, Wilde and Bosie had both been having sex with boys, some of whom who were under-age. Is that any more acceptable today? I don’t think so. As Bosie says, the paradox of Wilde is that he’s a gay hero who never considered telling the truth.

How different does this production feel to you than the original one? 

The 1998 production was a sort of legendary mess. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. Or maybe it was all our faults, mine as much as anyone’s. Sometimes, with the best intentions, everything goes wrong. That’s life. So when I saw Neil Armfield’s Sydney production for Belvoir Street Theatre, with [the late] Bille Browne as Wilde, I felt overwhelming relief that I wasn’t mad since the play on stage at last resembled the one in my head. When I read what Chekhov went through on The Seagull—disaster in St Petersburg, vindication in Moscow—I think how lucky he was to wait only two years. I waited 14 years!

How much of the success of this current production relies on Rupert Everett as Wilde?

When Rupert offered to play the part in London, I insisted Neil direct it. Some people believed that I must have re-written it to achieve so complete a transformation, but in fact every word was the same. The reality is that Rupert is giving a great performance, and how many of those do we see?

Brian Scott Lipton is a noted writer about the performing arts, culture, and fashion based in New York City.
Reprinted from April 2016 BAMbill.

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