A hundred and twenty-one years ago, the Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor after withdrawing his writ for criminal libel against the Marquess of Queensberry. Queensberry had “left a card” for Wilde at his club on which he scribbled “to Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite.” (Queensberry couldn’t spell.) It was put in an envelope by the hall porter and picked up by Wilde several weeks later. In a tragically blind example of early celebrity madness, Wilde challenged Queensberry — the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie — in the courts, only to end up in the dock himself accused of gross indecency and subjected to two of the most scandalous and tragic trials of the times. He was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel.
A few years later, I was desperately thinking of ways I could raise money for the film I had written about Wilde, and I suddenly remembered David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss.” It was one of my favorite plays. I thought if I could be good in the part of Oscar, who knew, it could be the next step, the missing link to getting my film on the road. I coerced my producer friend Robert Fox into action. We went to see David who agreed to the idea and then Robert put the whole thing together. Pretty soon we were rehearsing “The Judas Kiss” at the Hampstead Theater in London. It was the summer of 2012.
David’s play is an extraordinary portrait of Oscar Wilde etched out of two pivotal scenes in the writer’s life. The first act takes place at the Cadogan Hotel where Oscar hides after his libel action collapses. For any die-hard Wilde fan, that last afternoon of freedom in a pokey room on the corner of Pont Street is one of the great romantic riddles of the 19th century. (I have slept in that room, by the way. No message. No vibration.) Why does Wilde not run when he has the chance? Does he know that his place in history is being carved as he sits there waiting to be arrested?
The second act finds Oscar at the end of the road in a crumbling, rat-infested palazzo outside Naples as his lengthy affair with Bosie finally unravels. A beached whale (Oscar), his butcher (Bosie) and a bit of rough (Galileo, a Neapolitan fisherman) spend one last night tearing each other to shreds as the Bay of Naples shimmers below them “jewelled like the scrawny neck of some ageing dowager.” A surprise visit from Oscar’s closest friend, Robbie Ross, brings the drama to a head. The play ends with Oscar’s face framed in a pool of light. He is literally fading from view, laughing at himself and at life.
In the rehearsal room, David Hare watched a chaotic first run as if Armageddon were being revealed. His face was an agonized rictus of horror. Yes — I was all over the place — but so was everyone else. We all huddled like scared geese by the coffee machine during the interval while David and Neil Armfield, our marvelous Australian director, were coiled in a corner whispering — recasting? — but they didn’t have to worry.
Even if I was a little indistinct, unsure of the lines, less sure of the moves, crashing into the furniture — this is my technique — David did not know, nor did anyone else, that I had ordered the most incredible fat suit from the master of disguise Robert Allsopp, replete with baboon moobs, a wobbling midriff and a marvelous knee-length arse. I would wear it under a tightly laced corset, to squeeze me into the perfect Wildean waddle.
Oscar’s sexual organ would be the key to my performance, and Rob made a Christmas stocking of a thing, with low hanging orbs filled with dried beans. This appendage, squelched inside my trousers, would be visible to the audience. (I had to cut it down a size or two after a couple of previews. It was taking over.) I had an incredible set of dirty teeth (by Fangs) with enlarged gums to give my cheeks the Oscar silhouette.
I had two amazing wigs from the queen of hair, Alex Rouse, one thick and bouncy for Act I and the other thin and balding for the denouement. I was going to look astonishing as Oscar before I even opened my mouth.
Yes, I come from the Marlene Dietrich school of acting. Orson Welles once told me about the day he called Marlene and asked her to be in “Touch Of Evil” — that afternoon. She jumped out of bed, rushed over to Paramount to consult with her Svengali, Travis Banton (the well-known costumer). Together they ransacked the wardrobe department for a hat and a shawl and a couple of wigs, and then she drove like a wild thing down to the border and shot in the afternoon. I love this approach.
Luckily I had slightly more time than Marlene and spent a whole year — between hatching the production and it coming to pass — fine-tuning this look, if not my performance.
And sure enough, when I appeared onstage at the dress rehearsal there was a collective gasp. My creaky acting took flight. It was astonishing. Suddenly the role was made for me and I was made for it. A strange theatrical eclipse had occurred.
The reviews were good. Audiences were enthusiastic. We booked a tour and a West End transfer and I managed to get the BBC and Lionsgate to take part in my film.
Suddenly Wilde was my whole life, and it felt right, like the natural conclusion of something.
“Gay marriage has just gone through,” David Hare said one night, visiting my dressing room before the show. Parliament had voted, and it was splashed over the covers of all the papers. “Will you be marrying Henrique?”
“Maybe,” I replied cautiously.
“Of course you’re against it, aren’t you?” He had me down for a neocon.
“I loathe weddings if that’s what you mean. Gay or straight.”
Through the open door, I heard him spreading the news up the stairs to the other dressing rooms, and it suddenly struck me that tonight our play was the most important artistic expression of the times. In the theater, 700 people’s worlds collide each night, but this evening we were all tottering on one of the great tectonic shifts as our whole world was realigned. This is how it suddenly felt.
Just a century ago a man — Oscar — could be imprisoned and ruined — killed off, basically — simply for being gay. But tonight a homosexual stood on equal ground with the rest of society, and I was, quite unexpectedly, extremely moved.
Sitting in the blue light of the wings in my usual seat, my heart beating as fast as at an opening night, watching the technicians and actors emerge from the darkness in that methodical slow motion peculiar to our trade, I knew it was one of the great moments in my life.
I was aware of every minuscule movement in my body — veins gurgling, little muscles twitching, hairs standing up and waving — but also I could feel the whole audience. We were absolutely united. The same thought was crossing all our minds: This was the night to see a play about Oscar Wilde.
I hurled myself onto the stage for my first entrance, a theatrical Lazarus back from the grave. I was riding the crest of an invisible wave. Its undertow was the whole history of cruelty — the pillory, the scaffold, the red-hot poker and the burnings at the stake, all the vileness invented by humanity to curb and control the practitioners of the unspeakable sin — it was all tumbling on and Oscar was there in every word, razor sharp, slashing the world down to size, glittering in the lights and crashing against the walls of the theater.
For me, Oscar is a kind of Christ figure. In his exile he was — along with that other jailbird, Verlaine — the last of the great 19th-century vagabonds, shuffling from bar to bar on the boulevard, cadging drinks, tragic and comic, a clown with a missing tooth smelling vaguely of sweat and cigarettes. His companions were street urchins and petty criminals. His death in a cheap hotel room in Paris was the final great romantic tableau of the century and started one of the great 20th-century debates. Homosexuality was not even a familiar word until the scandal. Oscar changed that, and the long road began toward recognition and liberty.
We are all — the gays, the lesbians, the transgender community — still stalking, tottering and sashaying along it. As he predicted, it has been — will be — streaked with the blood of martyrs, but we have definitely come a long way since that May morning in 1895 when a judge could convict a man to two years of hard labor for being homosexual and get a standing ovation for it.
In the three years between the West End and our current revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, my film has floundered, sunk without a trace, resurfaced and sunk again. People have come and gone. One producer — slightly overweight — making his way down the five flights of stairs from our production office for the fifth time in one day, sweating and ashen, declared that “some films just don’t want to be made.” Well, mine does. We were finally greenlit in March. Eight years later. It has taken more resolve than I knew I had.
Meanwhile, “The Judas Kiss” is opening at BAM. We have new cast members, and it feels like a new play. My journey with Oscar continues.
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