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My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

The Judas Kiss: a star turn by Rupert Everett battles repression with Wildean wit and unabashed nudity

by Drew Rowsome - photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

There are certain things that one expects from a very satisfying British period drama: top notch acting, devastatingly witty lines delivered with arch aplomb, seething repressed sexuality, a touch of intellectual pretension, physical details to ground the nostalgia, and abundant scrumptious, but integral to the plot and themes, male nudity. Perhaps, with the latter, The Judas Kiss has just a little more to offer than "very satisfying."

Oscar Wilde is one of the patron saints of gay culture. His rise to the top of society and his tragic downfall because of society's abhorrence of his open sexuality, is high drama and gay history 101. The Judas Kiss offers Wilde and his world the night just before his arrest for gross indecency, and again after having spent two years in jail. But playwright David Hare is after more than a biographical lesson or historical titillation: The Judas Kiss is an indictment of infatuation, the British empire, smug artists, pretension, homophobia, the concept of honour, and, especially, that aforementioned repression. 

The Judas Kiss begins with an explicit tryst between a chambermaid and a valet. The servants, the lower class, prove to be polyamorous and uninhibited, even the bemused and very proper majordomo. That theme that is echoed in the second act when the Italian fisherman trick saunters unabashedly naked while Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie wraps himself in a sheet upon arising from their shared bed. Wilde and Bosie's first embrace is passionate, societal pressure turns the passion into a peck, and then into a Judas kiss.

Bosie is the villain of the piece and Charlie Rowe, a long way from his child actor roles in The Golden CompassNeverland and Walking with Dinosaurs 3D, is handsome enough to explain his appeal to Wilde, but somewhat strident instead of seductive. He does have a rousing speech that is the turn of the 18th century equivalent of a gay rights manifesto. That he intends to cave instead of fight makes it viciously satirical and tragic. He is quite content to sacrifice Wilde to the cause while saving himself by embracing the status quo.

His counterpart, Cal MacAninch as Robert Ross, the man Wilde let get away, only lets his passion and longing appear in the form of gestures and glances. He, as does Alister Cameron, Jessie Hills and Elliot Balchin, do some very fine acting with a great deal of subtlety, sketching entire characters out of understated details. Tom Colley gives more than is required of the fisherman trick, his body, and as Wilde quips, "His cock," are spectacular, but his face and sparkling eyes are always mobile, radiating a cheer and joy in total contrast to Wilde and Bosie's battle of wit against gloom. 

Of course Rupert Everett is the star and his Wilde does not disappoint. He dispenses epigrams and one-liners with casual ease, as if, resigned to his status as a genius, he can't help himself. But Everett places tiny cracks in the confident facade and lets the frightened and heartbroken man be revealed just long enough for the audience to think they have extraordinary insight. He can toss a clever insult so that it lands sharpened blade first, insist on making light of the most dire potential, but when he momentarily breaks down, or momentarily turns snarling on Bosie, or momentarily aches with love for Bosie, Everett is magnificent, unleashing a torrent of passion then tamping it down in an instant. Everett does everything in his power to age himself and exude world-weariness, a man in defeat, but the Wildean wit teases out Everett's charisma and caresses it until it sparkles.

Because Wilde was so entertaining and witty, The Judas Kiss is packed with laughs and a dry debonair style. Because Wilde's fate was so tragic, the laughs set up the devastation that ends The Judas Kiss. And because this is a very satisfying British period drama, the set is elegant, the lighting clever, and the costumes (by Sue Blaine who also created the costumes for that other British period piece decrying repression, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) are sumptuous. And because this is 2016, the bodies on display are porn star perfect rather than historically accurate (but that is hardly a complaint).

The Judas Kiss continues until Sun, May 1 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. mirvish.com


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