Stage Door Review

The Judas Kiss

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

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by David Hare, directed by Billy Lake

Talk Is Free Theatre, Five Points Theatre, Barrie

December 3-12, 2021

Wilde: “Everything I have done has been done for love”

I recently had cause to praise Barrie-based theatre company Talk Is Free Theatre for its production of Into the Woods “as more daring in some of its programming and productions than many in Toronto”. Its daring in programming is apparent this month with its production of David Hare’s 1998 play, The Judas Kiss, the first professional regional production of the play in Ontario. Since the play focusses on two key moments in the life of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the play would be a perfect fit for the first expanded mandate of the Shaw Festival. Yet where the Shaw misses out on a play, TIFT often steps in. Here, TIFT has given the play a thoughtful, incisive staging that presents the issues and structure of the work more clearly that the starry production Mirvish presented in Toronto in 2016.

Hare assumes a knowledge of the circumstance surrounding Oscar Wilde’s first trial in 1895. In Act 1 Wilde (Aidan deSalaiz) had already begun a private prosecution of the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, the Marquess having called Wilde a “sodomite”.  Wilde had been in a relationship with the Marquess’s son Lord Alfred Douglas (Noah Beemer), known as “Bosie”, since 1893.  If Queensberry’s lawyers could show that Wilde was an active homosexual, Wilde would be then arrested for “gross indecency”, put on trial and, if convicted be sentenced to hard labour in prison.

Robbie Ross (David Ball), the man who was Wilde’s first male lover and who remained his most loyal friend, urges Wilde to flee that night to France because of the absolute certainty that Queensberry will prove his case and Wilde will be arrested.  Bosie, however, wants Wilde to stay since he is convinced that his friends in parliament can get the case stopped.  Ross counters that Wilde has allowed himself to get caught up in the ongoing dispute between Queensberry and his son and that Wilde, an Irish writer an non-aristocrat, will be forced to pay the price for their relationship, but never an English lord like Bosie.  Despite Ross’s increasingly impassioned appeals, Wilde decides to dine and sleep in his room and do nothing.

At the start of Act 2 it is 1897 and Wilde has joined Bosie to live in Naples. Wilde has completed his prison sentence of two years of hard labour. Ross arrives to inform Wilde that Wilde has done precisely the one thing that Wilde’s wife Constance (mother of his two children) has forbidden, namely to take up again with Bosie. Because of that she wishes to divorce him which will result in his having no funds at all to live on. Bosie himself has gambled away all his money.

One may well wonder how the production of Hare’s play by a small theatre company in Barrie could convey more impact and insight than a starry production from the Chichester Festival in England. There are many answers to this question.

The most basic answer has to do with where and how the play is staged. In Toronto in 2016 the play was staged in the 2200-seat Ed Mirvish Theatre. In Barrie in 2021 it is staged in the 200-seat Five Points Theatre. The Judas Kiss is fundamentally an intimate play involving only three characters – Wilde, Bosie and Ross. There is no question that the smaller venue is the more appropriate. Dale Ferguson’s designs for the two settings of 2016 production – Wilde’s room at the Cadogan Hotel in London and Bosie’s dilapidated villa in Naples –  were detailed but were expanded to fill the huge playing area. In Barrie, Diane Frederick uses a minimum of furniture and scenery to suggest a location. The clear advantage of minimal staging is that it places the emphasis on the actors.

A second answer is that the 2016 production of The Judas Kiss was conceived as a star vehicle for Rupert Everett. Everett gave a magnificent performance, but star vehicles have the inherent difficulty that the audience tends to focus on the performance of the star actor at the expense of how the actor’s speeches fit into the whole of the play. At Barrie, the role of Wilde is the longest and most complex role Aiden deSalaiz, who is not yet a “star”, has ever played. As a consequence I found I listened to the play in quite a different way than I did in 2016. I focussed much more on how Wilde and the other characters interacted rather than primarily on Wilde.

Third, and most importantly, Billy Lake, in what must be one of his first directorial assignments, did not assume that the play would direct itself. It is apparent that Lake has taken great care to understand what the structure of the play is and what the play’s main issues are. He communicates his insights so well that all the elements of the play are clearer in the TIFT production than they were is the 2016 production.

In 2016 I was aware of a parallelism between Acts 1 and 2 which I assumed to revolve around Wilde’s self-destructive aim to take no action to preserve himself. Lake’s direction brings out a host of further parallels so that Act 2 almost appears to be a repetition of Act 1 only to show that the bad situation of Act 1 had degenerated further than we could have imagined.

To take one example, Hare’s play begins with a sexual romp between a bellhop and a maid on Wilde’s hotel bed while he’s away. In 2016 I assumed that this opening was just a sop for the heterosexuals in the audience who were in for an evening of discussion of same-sex love. In the TIFT production Lake gives this seemingly pointless opening meaning through the use of symbolic space and repeated gestures. Lake has Justan Myers as the bellhop and Evelyn Wiebe as the maid tussle on the bed stage right and then clutch sheets to cover themselves when they are discovered. Act two opens with Bosie and a fisherman named Galileo (also Myers) lounging in post coital exhaustion on a sofa stage right clutching sheets about themselves. Reflecting on Act 1 we see that the heterosexual romp between two lower-class people is not something even the hotel manager (Jason Allin) finds noteworthy. In contrast, as Act 1 goes on to prove a same-sex liaison between a  non-aristocrat and the son of an aristocrat is worthy of a huge scandal.

By Act 2 we have moved one rung down the moral scale. Here a liaison between the son of an aristocrat and a poor fisherman means nothing even to the man who has sacrificed everything for the son of the aristocrat. In both cases we presume the third party’s acceptance is because such liaisons have become so frequent. Whether through choice or necessity, having the same actor (Justan Myers) play both the bellhop in Act 1 and Galileo in Act 2 brilliantly reinforces the point which was not the case in 2016.

In a similar manner Lake places Bosie and Wilde in the same positions relative to each other in each act when Bosie makes the pronouncement that he has suffered more in his own way than Wilde has even when, in Act 2, Bosie is referring to Wilde’s time in prison.

The three main performers are all more familiar from musicals than from spoken plays. Just last month I reviewed deSalaiz and Beemer in Into the Woods and David Ball was in musicals at the Shaw Festival for seven seasons. It is a pleasure to see them carry off a complex play like this with such ease.

Aiden deSalaiz proves that he is more than ready to play characters who are required to hold the audience’s attention for an entire full-length play. He gives a superb performance as Wilde. In both acts his Wilde is a complex, sometimes self-contradictory character, but deSalaiz shows that the way in which Wilde expresses his complexity differs greatly between his life in London in 1895 and his life in Naples in 1897. In 1895 Wilde is like a bee buzzing around his hotel room, never settling, physically moving as it were from one flowering idea to the next.

In 1897 he sits as if confined to a single chair by medical authority, yet he still moves from idea to idea though more slowly, the movement visible only in his face and voice. DeSalaiz shows that Wilde’s mental activity has moved from an external manifestation to an internal one, from one of wide-ranging possibilities to one of narrower and bitterer certainties. DeSalaiz gives us the impression that in Act 1 Wilde is successfully deceiving himself about Bosie’s dedication to him, while in Act 2 he sees through Bosie but can’t shake his unfathomable love for him.

Noah Beemer is excellent as Bosie. He shows him to be superficial, self-absorbed but charming in Act 1 and superficial, and self-absorbed in Act 2 while the charm has worn thin. Beemer lends Bosie an ironic tone in Act 2 which contrasts with his enthusiastic sincerity in Act 1. In both acts, Wilde asks Bosie to kiss him. Lake stages both scenes in exactly the same way which only highlights the huge change that separates the two. In the first Wilde seeks consolation from Bosie. The second is Wilde’s farewell to the lover who has betrayed him.

David Ball is a constant as Robbie Ross in both acts. With this character subtext is everything and Ball conveys that subtext with everything he says and does. Though Ross was Wilde’s first male lover, he is still in love with Wilde. Ball gives Ross a stiffness in speech and gesture that reflects control Ross is trying to exert over his surging emotions of heartbreak and anger. As depicted by Hare, Ross has Wilde’s best interests at heart. In Act 1 he urges Wilde to flee London to avoid a trial that will result in a prison sentence. In Act 2 he urges Wilde to leave Bosie to avoid a divorce from Constance and a loss of his income and the chance to see his children.

Ball makes visible the frustration Ross feels with Wilde’s refusal in each case all the while forcing himself to remain calm and rational. To Ross, Bosie is nothing but a deceitful spoiled brat who has been manipulating Wilde in order to humiliate Bosie’s father. Still in love with Wilde, the selfless Ross can’t fathom how Wilde can still be in love with self-centred Bosie.

Of the three minor roles, all well played, the most notable is that of the bellhop and Galileo both payed by Justan Myers. In Act 1 Myers portrays the English bellhop as a randy youth who is ready for a bit of naughty fun with males or females. In Act 2 Myers portrays the Italian fisherman as a man for whom sex has no aura of naughtiness of any kind.

On first seeing The Judas Kiss in 2016, I didn’t think it was a play that would really merit a second viewing. The TIFT production has proved me wrong. I can say that I got far more out of the play from the TIFT production because the direction and acting were so focussed and clear. Anyone who wants to have more insight into Hare’s play and into Wilde himself should make every attempt to to see the TIFT production. The production luckily preserves the central mystery of Wilde, namely to what extent in seeking nobility of action did he know he was also inviting self-destruction.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Justan Myers, Aiden deSalaiz and Noah Beemer; Aiden deSalaiz as Oscar Wilde; Noah Beemer as Lord Alfred Douglas; Aiden deSalaiz and Noah Beemer. © 2021 Scott Cooper.

For tickets visit www.tift.ca.