Sometimes the props do the acting. Remember Nicole Kidman’s false nose in “The Hours”?
Rupert Everett is playing Oscar Wilde, and his fat suit looks like it’s about to leap off and start reciting monologues from “Falstaff” at him.
No marks for costume designer Sue Blane then, and full marks to Everett delivering a career-defining performance in David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss” now playing in London.
In Act 1, Wilde is about to be charged with sodomy. He has to choose whether to flee to France or stay and make a stand on English hypocrisy. His friend Robert Ross (Cal MacAninch) urges the former, and his hot-headed lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Freddie Fox) the latter.
The act creates a feel of ticking-bomb suspense and zings with operatic energy. Set it to music, and it could be a terrific soprano-tenor-baritone trio from a 19th-century opera.
Act 2 takes place after Wilde has been released from his hard labor, and is living in Naples. He watches Douglas become increasingly discontented with his shabby surroundings.
Oscar is asked why he once preferred the dusty memoirs of the Duke of Argyll to a comic novel by Jerome K. Jerome. “The unread is always better than the unreadable,” he replies airily.
Who knew that Hare had such a talent for witty paradox, or such a flair for the mechanics of a well-made play? It’s the best thing he’s written, and offers a wonderful chance for Everett to show his chops. One moment his Wilde has poise; the next, he’s crumpled into fear.
Freddie Fox crackles like blazing logs as the fiery Douglas, and Can MacAninch makes the most of the quieter role of Ross.
The production (a transfer from the Hampstead Theatre) is worthy rather than exciting. Director Neil Armfield offers few surprises, while doing a fine job with the actors. Rating: ****.
There’s a more successful costume over at the Royal Opera in “The Minotaur” by Harrison Birtwistle.
Bass John Tomlinson, who plays the half-man-half-bull of the title, sports a wire-mesh bull’s head and a body stocking covered in hair (designs by Alison Chitty.)
The role was written in 2008 for Tomlinson, and in this first revival he has added power. While awake, the Minotaur is a beast who grunts and roars. While he dreams, he’s human.
The plot (libretto David Harsent) is a model of its kind. Theseus (Johan Reuter) wants to kill the Minotaur. He can only do it with the help of the creature’s sister, Ariadne (Christine Rice). Her price is Theseus’s love. It’s neat and taut.
Birtwistle’s music is of the angular, atonal school. Stephen Langridge’s production, set in a stylized bull-ring, has a mythic simplicity, and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth drives the score hard. Rating: ****.
Contemporary drama doesn’t fare so well over at the Royal Court Theatre. Polly Stenham’s piece “No Quarter” doesn’t build on the promise of “That Face” and “Tusk Tusk”.
Robin (an awkward Tom Sturridge) is an upper-crust bohemian druggy who, after he has helped euthanize his ailing mother (with her consent), finds she has sold the home he was hoping to live in. Various friends come and offer support or conflict over the course of a rambling 110 minutes with no interval.
Stenham’s dramatic ironies, when the audience is privileged to know more than the characters, are masterly. Still, she doesn’t offer much contrast from the selfish main character. Rating: **.
“The Judas Kiss” is at the Duke of York’s Theatre. http://www.atgtickets.com
“The Minotaur” is in repertory at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk
“No Quarter” is at the Royal Court. http://www.royalcourttheatre.com
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars)Worthless
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)