A Kiss Before Dying

The exquisite irony of it! A century after his fall from grace into penal servitude, penniless exile, and premature death, Oscar Wilde is more famous and fêted than in all his years of glitter and glory. Does even a month go by without a new book, movie, or play about him, or at the very least an article of critical reappraisal? The man and his works, whom the powers that were and the public at large had condemned to instant oblivion, resurface to an insistent afterlife of endless fascination. Oscar has won; too bad he couldn’t live to see it.

Among the latest tributes are the film Wilde and David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss, the one rehearsing the known facts, the other trying to forge ahead. Hare invents what might have gone on at the Cadogan Hotel just before Wilde’s arrest, about which a good deal is known. Also what happened in Naples – after Wilde’s release and reunion with Lord Alfred Douglas (his beloved Bosie) – about which nothing very reliable is known. The play imagines what their last night and dawn together may have been.

Hare must be given credit for his omissions: He has resisted rehashing all those echoing epigrams, the stuff the cognoscenti never tire of rehearing and that reduces neophytes to helpless guffaws. As the play moves into its more revelatory second act in Italy, and Hare improvises even more freely than in the first, the end of the long affair comes into sardonic, often witty, and intermittently philosophical focus. There are some nice patches of dialogue, with Bosie acting the rather devious straight man to Oscar’s now more subdued and rueful but still not unstinging sallies and wry reflections on the follies of the world and the frailty of relationships.

Act One, however familiar (even from John Betjeman’s 1937 poem, which sums up the events in a mere 36 lines), manages at any rate a certain sense of urgency. Act Two has all the interesting ideas but remains static, despite some nude cavorting by Bosie with a young Neapolitan fisherman implausibly named Galileo. The able director, Richard Eyre, does his level best, but with Wilde mostly collapsed in an armchair, Galileo crouching befuddled on the bed, and Bosie scurrying skittishly but aimlessly about, things resist enlivening. It’s all rather like a staged Socratic dialogue, only a little less platonic. Some of the facile jokes apropos Galileo (“See stars, did you?”) and uncharacteristically raunchy lingo (“We can’t live on cock!”) may delight the groundlings, but are unworthy of Hare and Eyre, let alone Wilde.

Casting Liam Neeson as Wilde is a calamity. Though Oscar, by all accounts, was not effeminate, Neeson is too butch for a longshoreman. He is enormous, with a caveman’s backward-sloping brow, a hawklike proboscis, and a lumbering walk. His voice is rough-hewn, often a growl; his attempt at a Wildean coiffure misfires and makes him look more like a Dutch burgher or Puritan divine. When he tries for the occasional airy flippancy or minuetish caper, he is best described by the Marquess of Queensberry’s card deposited at Wilde’s club: “posing as a sodomite.”

Against this giant, tiny Tom Hollander’s frizzy-haired pixie of a Douglas is equally wrong. Here the playwright, too, falsifies, substituting for the character’s imperious rages and poseurish languors a sniveling, subaltern whininess. And I seriously doubt whether Robert Ross – Wilde’s most solicitous friend – was as fussily schoolmarmish as the script, rather than the capable Peter Capaldi, makes him out to be.

There are moments when the acting – as often as not of such minor characters as a hotel employee amusingly embodied by Alex Walkinshaw – takes off and the dialogue provides something to bite into. Bob Crowley’s sets, though more restrained than usual, are not without allure, especially as lighted by Mark Henderson. But sorely lacking for me is the drama so well anticipated by John Webster’s lines: “Thou hast led me like an heathen sacrifice, / With music and the fatal pomp of flowers, / To mine eternal ruin.”

A Kiss Before Dying