Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Judas Kiss, Mockingbird Theatre, Courtyard, Canberra Theatre

In the late 90s, three major plays about Oscar Wilde were produced. One, "The Invention of Love" by Tom Stoppard, is really only in on a technicality as he's a five-page cameo, but inevitably when you've got Tom Stoppard writing Oscar Wilde, the wit pours like gold, and in those five pages, when Wilde converses with the poet A.E. Houseman about art and love, there's theatrical magic (the play, incidentally, has never, as far as I can tell, had a production in Australia - probably due to a slightly dense first act that's largely about Latin vocab - the second act however has scenes as witty and heartbreaking as you could ever want that make it worth sitting through act one for). The second,"Gross Indecency" by Moises Kaufman, is the documentary, taken largely from the transcripts of the three trials that disrupted his life, and uses the documentary techniques to examine the trial from multiple angles - we get the social, political and class-issues as well as the suffering artist.

David Hare's play is the personal view - two snapshots before and after Wilde's imprisonment. Hare was a particularly widely performed writer in the 90s - his ability to examine social issues via the personal portrait (and, incidentally, writing huge star parts for Michael Gambon ("Skylight"), Judi Dench ("Amy's View"), Nicole Kidman ("The Blue Room") and himself ("Via Dolorosa")) made him hugely attractive to places like the MTC and the STC. "Judas Kiss" when originally performed had a star who was probably wrong for the part - Liam Neeson (who is Irish but otherwise has few characteristics in common with Oscar Wilde) - but in its first Australian production, found exactly the right star, Bille Brown (in a Belvoir production that toured to Canberra in March 1999) - returning to Australia after a UK career that had seen him performing with the RSC for roughly 11 years to a role that suited him exactly. The equivocating, romantic, sometimes exasperating Wilde sat on Brown like a glove - you couldn't help but recognise the supreme talent of the man even as you recognised how easily he was setting himself up for his downfall.

The play has traps. Hare often gestures towards a more interesting play than he's actually written - there's a well-painted portrait of Victorian sexual hypocrisy at the beginning of the play between three hotel staff, but this stays as background for the rest of the play as the characters aren't really developed and become slightly sentamentilised. Bosie, Wilde's lover and the primary cause of his downfall, is a man who it's almost impossible to paint with a lot of sympathy (his behavior largely indicates an entitled brat with no sense of how his actions affect anybody else) and Hare's play doesn't help matters, having Bosie enter the play as a prat and leave as scum. And the second act has very florid and verbose passages of static conversation, longer than they need to be to prove the point they're making. Plus ... well, as a wit, Hare isn't in Wilde's class, so Wilde's dialogue generally tends to be more airily affable than constantly fascinating - it needs that star in the centre to make the exercise work. There's a theme in the play about love that I wish was developed more - Robbie Ross's frustration in the corner as the ex who is not over his former partner, disapproving of the new partner, looks at this distance like a classic example of "nice guy" syndrome (where the "niceness" is a cover for a raging sense of entitlement over another person's feelings); while Bosie's frustration at being loved so excessively and publicly in a way he's not ready to admit he's incapable of returning is similarly not quite developed in a way that would take the prattish edges off the character and give him dimension.

And yes, now I'm actually getting to the production. This is ... an adequate production. In performances, I particularly liked the servant trio of Meaghan Stewart, Cole Hilder and Arran McKenna in the opening scene, although McKenna's scottish accent does veer on the borders of incomprehensibility). Patrick Galen-Mules does okay by Robert Ross's "decent friend" side but the darker, "entitled to his love" side of the part feels undercooked. Liam Jackson seems underprepared for the difficult role of Bosie - at some points his performance seems like something out of "Blackadder" rather than a serious play. Chris Baldock as Wilde draws the attention and maintains the night like a person in a star part should, but is missing some of the essential lightness of Wilde in act one - he's almost indicating Wilde's fall before it actually happens, so there's not quite as much of a journey as one might want - and in the long act two, he's unable to be compellingly still - there's a lot of fidgeting while he's sitting there observing. Benjamin Balte Rusell has the challenge of performing nude in Italian while having his genitalia commented on - the production doesn't seem to have worked out what purpose his role serves apart from that (from memory, the Belvoir production gave him some bubbly genial charm that offset the otherwise grim nature of the rest of Act Two - this doesn't give him that but there's not a lot else to replace it).

Karina Hudson's direction doesn't really wrestle with the challenges Hare's script presents, or if it does, it doesn't succeed in finding resolution for them. It's also got issues with sightlines (characters who sit on the couch disappeared behind the audience member in front of me from where I was sitting). Anna Senior's costumes have a good sense of period although some of them are worn a little roughly.

I had hoped for better from Mockingbird in their first production - I've been anticipating this for a while - but this is fairly middling stuff.

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