“Each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, expounding, “The coward does it with a kiss.” Wilde and David Hare alike have in mind the kiss of betrayal, the outward show – and perhaps even sincere expression – of love which is also a deliberate condemnation. Hare’s 1998 play focuses on two moments in Wilde’s later life. In the first act, following the collapse of his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry in 1895, his dilemma over whether or not to leave England in order to avoid prosecution. In the second, several months after his release from prison in 1897, the end of his relationship with Queensberry’s son Lord Alfred Douglas, “Bosie”, when the two were living in Naples.
The treacherous kisser may be Wilde’s friend and former lover Robbie Ross (Cal Macaninch), who on each occasion counselled prudence and acquiescence in the face of conventional codes to which neither he nor Wilde subscribed. In the second act, an outburst from Bosie briefly suggests that Wilde’s own cowardice in not outfacing the accusations against him may be the true betrayal. But even while his words are factually accurate, they remain ridiculously vain and egotistical. There is little doubt that the Judas in question is this solipsistical young man, whose attachment to Wilde was, the latter remarks, in the end less a matter of love than of power.
Hare’s Wilde is a blend of his own time and ours: fond of epigrams and affectation, but, when speaking plainly, abrasively sarcastic. (He is also far from free of anachronistic turns of phrase.) Rupert Everett is well cast in the role with its combination of floridity and acidity, although in those Wildean locks he resembles an epicene version of Steve Coogan. As Bosie, Freddie Fox is a pretty, spoilt brat, convinced of the truth even of his most absurd claims, as when he denies his homosexuality: “I am not an invert!” he protests, to which Wilde tiredly replies, “No. Just a brilliant mimic.” Neil Armfield’s production is elegant, if a little overdone (as is Hare’s writing) at the formal coda to each act. Wilde remains our contemporary, though perhaps not in all these respects.