His suitcase is packed; the cab is waiting; the police are not yet at the door. If he leaves now, he can make it to France and flee the fate that awaits him. Yet Oscar Wilde refuses to leave. He sits in a room at the Cadogan Hotel and eats his lunch. Why? It is the question that powers David Hare’s play and in his poignant drama, and Neil Armfield’s riveting production (first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2012), there is no easy answer.
Hare focuses on two turning points in Wilde’s life. The first is that fateful 1895 afternoon as he awaits the arrest that will culminate in two years in gaol for “gross indecency”. Wilde, despite the dangers, decides to stay. The second is a night, post-prison, in exile near Naples with Lord Alfred Douglas or “Bosie”, his lover and the cause of his distress. Bosie, despite all that Wilde has been through, decides to leave. The overwhelming impression is that the love for which Wilde lost so much was not worth the pain. But Hare broadens the debate, suggesting that Wilde in part decided to stay out of a determination not to betray his own nature, principles and love. Rupert Everett’s Wilde appears both wilfully obdurate and touchingly noble, and his refusal to run shows up the cynical hypocrisy of the society around him.
This is a fine and subtle piece of writing that delivers complex, mixed-up characters. At the helm, Everett gives a masterly and very moving performance. Made up to resemble the older, jowlier Wilde, he combines deep weariness with flashes of the sharp wit that has made his name. But he also suggests the warmth and generosity of the man, as he attempts to unload most of his ready cash on to the staff at the hotel in the first half, and the dark sadness of his older, broken self as he watches Bosie gradually reveal his own ruthless self-preservation strategy.
Freddie Fox gives Bosie a charm and energy that makes sense of Wilde’s affection, and there is excellent work from Cal MacAninch as Wilde’s devoted friend Robbie Ross. It is slow to get going and a little static as a play, but it gradually draws you in. And running through it all is the irony that Wilde would surely have appreciated: he has the last laugh over the society that constrained him, as his story is played out on the West End stage.