Rupert Everett is an interesting and ultimately successful choice to play Oscar Wilde in this revival of David Hare’s 1998 imagining of the great Irish playwright and wit’s last years (the first half takes place on the day of his arrest followed in the second by his last months spent in exile with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas).
Our star gives us all the lolloping, the puffed cheeks, the slow gait, but Everett being Everett he brings a good deal more glamour to the role. Not only that, one senses that the actor knows it and this infuses his performance in a way that slightly mars plausibility. Under the studied direction of Neil Armfield, Everett pats the bottom of his loyal friend Robert Ross (an excellent Macaninch) as he first finds himself holed up in the Cadogan Hotel, his 1895 libel trial having just collapsed and his own arrest imminent. There he kisses and fondles his lover, Douglas, played with consummate bratty screetchiness by Freddie Fox. The latter is smart as well as spoiled, offering a very physical performance, dancing across the stage, he is effeminate but also rippling with muscly masculinity even when he lays absurd claim to poetic greatness.
Credit, too, to Dale Ferguson’s designs which in the first act convey all the sordid sensuality of the scarlet-draped hotel interior. In the second half, as the couple find themselves down on their luck in Naples, there is an evocative shabby simplicity.
But the central performance stands out. He is sexier than you’d expect, but also beautifully emotional. Thankfully the Christ-like comparisons so dumbly evoked in the Stephen Fry film are eschewed without losing the pain behind the mask of familiar epigrammatic theatricality. It is inevitably hard to disengage Wilde from the pose, but Everett finds in Hare’s words the pathos, anger and fearsome intelligence beneath his overwhelmingly tragic loyalty to love.