David Hare is a prolific English playwright, screenwriter, theatre and film director. Notable plays he has written include Plenty (which Hare later adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep) and The Blue Room (performed on London’s West End with Nicole Kidman).
Hare has also received two Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, for both The Hours (2002) and The Reader (2008).
In 2004, Hare was invited to Australia for the Melbourne International Festival. Here, he performed Via Dolorosa, a powerful monologue, which Hare wrote to help audiences understand the complexity of the Israeli – Palestinian struggle.
Rarely one to shy away from the topic of human conflict, Hare’s earlier 1998 work, The Judas Kiss, is a two – act play based on a pair of key episodes detailing the rise and fall of Oscar Wilde.
At his creative height, Wilde, an Irish poet and playwright, was the toast of London. Responsible for such pieces as Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband, they were humorous yet biting commentaries on Victorian society. Not surprisingly, all three works were smash hits with contemporary theatre audiences.
It was later during the reign of Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, when scandal struck.
Though married with children, Wilde was involved in a string of affairs with various younger men.
At the time in England, engaging in male homosexual sex was deemed a criminal offence. Being accused of this ‘gross indecency’ carried severe consequences: prison time with hard labour. The social stigma alone was enough to destroy promising careers and topple public reputations.
Wilde’s tightrope relationship and its fallout with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas are both the basis and focus of The Judas Kiss.
Douglas was also the son of John Sholto Douglas, The Ninth Marquess of Queensbury. A powerful member of the British aristocracy, Lord Queensbury was infuriated by the couple’s ongoing affiliation. In his outrage, he openly accused Wilde of being a ‘posing sodomite’.
Wilde legally countered this serious allegation, resulting in the Lord Queensbury’s arrest on a charge of criminal libel.
The ensuing trial combined with Wilde’s unfortunate flippancy, led instead to his own arrest. When revealing evidence against the playwright proved Lord Queensbury’s accusation true, Wilde himself was sentenced to two years gaol.
Previous actors to have played Wilde in The Judas Kiss include the late Bille Brown (with a 1999 local touring production for the Belvoir St Theatre) and Rupert Everett on the West End in 2013.
The show’s genius is its ability to draw from and elaborate on Wilde’s words as a source of phrasing inspiration. Hare also reinforces them by creating a drawing room drama similar in style and fit to Wilde’s own comedies of manners and class divide.
Upon the show’s debut in 1998 however, the play generated a great deal of shock publicity for graphically depicting simulated sex (both heterosexual and homosexual) onstage as well.
Ultimately, a successful staging of the show hinges on any theatre company and their ability to communicate Hare’s powerful imagining. Under Jason Cavanagh’s and Celeste Cody’s tight co-direction, Mockingbird Theatre presents a solid cast of seven up to the challenge.
As Wilde, Chris Baldock has the physical presence, intellectual pause and dry wit required to take on this pivotal role. Oscar Wilde was a man trapped by his own making. Though Wilde had the chance to flee, Baldock channels a pioneer determined to stay and fight injustice.
Nigel Langley plays Lord Alfred as a naïve yet torn young man. Divided by loyalty equal to Oscar and his absent father, Langley communicates this power struggle with realistic conviction. What makes his relationship with Wilde heartbreaking in act two, is when Douglas realises the financial hold his family has over him if he is to survive.
Oliver Coleman is Robert Ross, Wilde’s advisor and an alleged former lover. Coleman plays the character stoic yet supportive, wanting only what is best for Oscar even in the face of sacrifice. You feel his constant frustration.
Zak Zavod as Arthur Wellesley, Lauren Murtagh as Phoebe Cane, Soren Jensen as Sandy Moffat and Nores Cerfeda as Galileo Masconi, excellently round out the supporting roles in The Judas Kiss.
The foursome highlights both the stark divide between the rich and working class, but also that without the risk of losing money and power, one’s moral actions may be allowed to slip under the radar.
Set design by Cavanagh and Juliet Hindmarsh highlights both the lavish Victorian era and yet an urgent and impending sense of doom. As both evening and Wilde’s arrest approaches, subtly striped wallpaper helps to slowly close his fate. Thanks to Rob Sowinski’s sensitive lighting, the room quietly takes on the look and feel of a prison cell.
The scenic wealth and opulence of act one is sharply replaced in act two by new quarters once grand, but now run down and forgotten.
Props and wardrobe by Kellie Bray also reflect this monetary shift. Outlining a youthful arrogance in act one, Lord Alfred is dressed like an upper crust schoolboy, complete with a straw boater. Draped in only a bed sheet for most of act two, he carries a temporary yet nervous freedom.
Particularly in the aesthetic dressing of Oscar, Baldock is in smart period costume for act one. In act two, his grey clothing significantly helps to communicate a man tired, broken and destitute.
It is astounding to think that merely a century ago, sharing the love that dared not speak its name was a punishable crime in Victorian England. The Judas Kiss is an important show that not only details how far society has come, but how far we still have to go.
It is a credit to Mockingbird Theatre for taking on this provocative and theatrical time capsule.
The Judas Kiss plays till Saturday March 22 at Theatre Works