By David Hare
Directed by Neil Armfield
Venue: Hampstead Theatre
Date: Saturday 13th October 2012
I didn’t find this as enjoyable as the original production with Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander. The design and the play itself were partly responsible for this, but the main flaw from my perspective was the central performance by Rupert Everett, who lacked the gravitas which Liam Neeson brought to the role. This was partly a physical thing, since with his slight frame Rupert would never convince the impersonation aficionados, while with the padding they chose to use I found him unconvincingly artificial. Even so, I warmed to him as the play went on despite his overlight touch, and with the dialogue being a little darker in the second half I felt his performance worked better. I accept that his interpretation was within reasonable bounds, but having seen what can come out of this play I found it wanting. On the previous occasion I felt moved by Wilde’s situation; today I wasn’t.
The set for the first half was dark and dreary. A bare black wall slanted across the stage on the right with a gap for a window towards the back. A large bed was against the back wall, sheets askew, and when the lights came up a little I could see a sofa against the wall, a large chair in the centre of the room, other chairs and tables in between these and lots of clothes strewn about the place. We were too far round to the left to see that side of the stage properly. Over the whole floor, and covering some of the tables as well, was a vast brown sheet, possibly velour or a fabric of similar appearance. It hadn’t been spread out fully, so there were wrinkles and folds everywhere, and to my eye it made the whole room look cheap. This is meant to be an exclusive London hotel, after all; I’d expect better carpeting at least.
The play starts with a naked romp in the bed by two of the hotel staff, one of the maids and one of the men. The arrival of their boss put an end to their shenanigans, and the tidying up process allowed for some initial exposition. Soon Ross and then Bosie arrived, giving us more information and setting up their characters: Ross the quiet, prudent, faithful type and Bosie a spoilt, petulant brat of the aristocracy with no discernible positive qualities whatsoever.
During this section the servants were making up the bed – the old sheets had been stripped off and removed. Both Steve and I found this distracting, and lost out on some of the dialogue as a result. Perhaps our sightlines made it worse as the bed was in our view all the time; people on the other side of the auditorium may have fared better.
The servants continued to be somewhat of a distraction after Wilde arrived, too. Their presence was necessary though, as they allowed us to see the different attitudes of the three men towards them. Bosie was used to having servants; his idea of the only alternative to a servant pouring his drink was that the drink should pour itself. Ross was courteous to the servants and handed out the money to them, but Oscar was both kind and generous, which explained the high regard these representatives of the ordinary man and woman had for him. Mind you, the maid would happily have taken every penny that was going, and we enjoyed her reactions when Sandy Moffat, the major-domo, refused £5 for each of the three servants; she looked away, then spoke up brightly to agree with Sandy when prompted.
I don’t remember the servants being such a distraction before, but as I don’t have notes from that far back I can’t be sure. The performance started to get into its stride once they had gone and we could focus on the central relationship between Oscar and Bosie. It was clear that Bosie assumed his cousin could either prevent Wilde’s arrest or an actual trial, and that his sole motivation, despite his protestations of affection for Oscar, was his hatred for his father, the Marquis of Queensbury. Wilde was flippant at times, but his reason for staying seemed to be solely his passion for Bosie, the same sort of destructive passion expounded by Rattigan in The Deep Blue Sea.
For the second half, the set was changed to the villa in Italy. Still with the black wall, there was a huge white drape suspended over the set and drawn back to create an overhang and a wall, with the rest of the curtain pulled back round the side. The bed was placed under this curtain, there was another chair in the middle with a small table and a small cabinet for the coffee etc. against the far wall. The window became a doorway and there were some pots around the floor to suggest décor, with a couple of other chairs against the walls to complete the setting. It was still very drab; only the lighting suggested the Mediterranean.
Wilde spent most of the act sitting in the chair, and I heard more of his dialogue during this half. Bosie and the naked Italian fisherman lay on the bed at the start, and there was plenty on display for the early part of this scene. I didn’t follow the Italian dialogue but the intentions were pretty clear, and Bosie’s petulant rant about his own suffering, while Wilde sat there uncomplaining, served to show us the young man’s least attractive qualities. The discussion with Ross was good but lacked some of the temper which can be there, while the final scene with Bosie explaining his decision to leave was very good. The young aristocrat was unpleasantly manipulative, and his total lack of understanding was emphasised by his prophecy that Wilde’s plays would be forgotten (as if!). Basically he wanted to get back to a life of luxury which meant complying with his family’s wish that he leave Wilde altogether, so he dredged up every silly little excuse he could to make his choice seem reasonable. Wilde understood this perfectly, accepted and forgave it. It was a fitting end to their relationship, and an inevitable one.
The other performances were all fine today, though the theatricality of Bosie’s mannerism took a little getting used to. Between scenes there was a beam of light sweeping around the room which looked very odd. It was specified in the text however; for the second act it represented a lighthouse beam, though it didn’t behave like any lighthouse beam I’ve ever seen. In the first act it was just “the light” moving around in a strange way. Apart from that and the very low-key set design, the production was OK, and they did get a strong response from the audience. It’s still a good play, and I would hope to see another good production in the future.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me