The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2012; Duke of York's Theatre Spring 2013
The familiar story of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas is revisited in David Hare's 1998 play, which doesn't tell us enough that's new or offer enough in the way of imagined characterisation and explanation to add much to what most will come in already knowing.
This revival does serve as a vehicle for actor Rupert Everett, who gives a bravura performance as Wilde, and that, along with Hare's few hints of original insight, will have to be the major attraction.
If you really don't know the story, go look it up. Hare focusses on two specific events, the day in 1895 when Wilde inexplicably didn't take the opportunity to leave England and allowed himself to be arrested, and the day in 1897 when Bosie totally explicably abandoned Wilde in Italy.
Of the two characters, the play's portrait of Bosie, and Freddie Fox's performance under Neil Armfield's direction, are the most predictable and conventional. Hare's Bosie is a total rotter, an immature, egotistical, self-obsessed twerp not only incapable of love but incapable of imagining that he is not the centre of the universe or that his own petty concerns are not far more significant than another's tragedy.
Fox adds pretty-boy preening and the quality of convincing himself that he is absolutely sincere at the very moments he's being most hypocritical. What is missing, though, in both writing and performance, is any hint of what it was in the boy that attracted Wilde and fed his self-destructive obsession.
It would be nice if we were allowed to glimpse something – vitality, a sweet innocence in the blind egotism, even a kind of love for Oscar that the older man would respond to – to help make the story make sense.
In its place, we are given Hare's one interesting guess/insight about Wilde's side of the story – that what really drove him was his fatal inclination to see himself as a tragic hero, a character in some imagined novel or drama, doomed by the author's will to act out a predetermined role.
In this reading Bosie is almost irrelevant – Oscar doesn't try to escape arrest not because he can't leave Bosie but because the role of hero/victim is irresistible; and in the second act, having mentally cast Bosie as Judas and himself as Christ, it's not too much to say he rather enjoys being the betrayed martyr.
With Wilde written as a self-dramatising figure constantly playing a role and on some psychological level revelling in it, the part becomes an opportunity for Rupert Everett to give as larger-than-life a performance as he wants, as long as he lets us see that it is the character, and not the actor, who is overacting.
So just watching Everett is a delight as in the first act he plays a man behaving in the grand manner of a nineteenth-century tragedian, and in the second half as the more subdued Wilde and the more subtly playing actor enjoy the sniping zingers of the cynical observer.
Cal Macaninch provides solid support as the too-practical-to-be-listened-to Wilde friend Robert Ross, and Alister Cameron as an unflappable and surprisingly sympathetic seen-it-all hotelier.
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