Towards the end of the play, Oscar Wilde says John, not Judas, should’ve been the one to betray Jesus since John was the apostle Jesus most loved while he hardly knew Judas. And watching how Oscar has been forsaken by the love of his life, we understand why.
Jason Cavanagh’s elegant revival of David Hare’s 1998 play is a rich portrait of unequal love, and a moving portrayal of what it means to live under the conviction that “Only when we love do we see the true person. Love is not the illusion. Life is.”
It is 1895. Oscar has lost a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry who has accused him of sodomy. The Marquess is the father of his paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), and the writer himself now faces arrest.
Meanwhile, Robert Ross, his former flame who still harbours a passion for Oscar has organised for the embattled prosecutor-turned-defendent to leave whilst at the same time nursing the heartache of having the man he loves loving somebody else.
Under Chris Baldock’s thespian brilliance, Oscar who died more than 100 years ago wits his way back to life before our eyes. But rather than the flamboyant spirit with a piercing intellect you’d imagine, Baldock presents a more sombre figure that the Irish poet became.
Allowing himself to see only the best in his object of desire, Baldock’s Oscar is vehement in his delusion, in denial of being used by Bosie as a tool to rebel against his father.
Refusing to give in to the oppression of aristocracy, blindly believing that Bosie will work on acquiring his bail, that flight would represent a betrayal of their love, Oscar rebuffs Robert’s well-meaning gestures, and stays to be apprehended.
Hare’s exquisite writing finds character distinctions between Oscar and Bosie; it contrasts the devotion Robert has for Oscar with the selfish callousness of Oscar’s new beau, and compares Oscar’s unreturned love for Bosie with Robert’s for Oscar.
After the interval, in Naples, following two years of hard-labour incarceration, a perceptibly-diminished Oscar is reunited with Bosie who carries on with his promiscuous ways despite their destitution.
But Oscar, even when facing demands to leave Bosie or have the allowance from his wife cut off, will not abandon his lover — only to find himself soon enough dumped.
Through Baldock, we see the despair of a fervent romantic who, wrapped up in extravagant quixotism, had clung on to the hope that the world (including his wife and children) would understand if Bosie and he could prove their inextinguishable love.
“The governing principle of my life has been love,” Oscar says to the departing Bosie. “But of yours, it has been power.”
And the script is woven with a language that is as lush as it is lustrous.
Other performances, too, have been tremendous. Nigel Langley’s Bosie is positively unlikable (as he should be), callow and curiously self-righteous; hotel servants by Soren Jensen and Lauren Murtagh and Zak Zavod are appropriately human beneath uniforms of subservience. Oliver Coleman, though, is worthy of special mention: remarkably poised, he combines in Robert a quiet dignity and an emotional anguish when told that what he had with Oscar is “not the same” as what Oscar now has with Bosie.
Besides drawing out the psychological truths of the drama, Cavanagh also gives the simulated-sex and nude scenes an artful quality. And the lighting design by Rob Sowinski is excellent as well in conveying the dusk of a dying love, and the darkest moments of the final goodbye before dawn.
Having everything taken from him, not least his ability to write, Oscar would have seen why it was Judas who gave Jesus away — he hardly knew Bosie afterall — if he had realised that perhaps life is not the illusion; but love is.