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Not so Wilde about the boys

David Hare has miscast 'The Judas Kiss' and misjudged the passions of Oscar Wilde, writes Paul Taylor
TOM HOLLANDER currently has one of the more enviable jobs in showbusiness, or so the vast majority of women - and not a few men - might assume. In The Judas Kiss, the new David Hare play about Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, he's on the receiving end of some passionate osculation from the Oscar of the Hollywood-wowing hunk, Liam Neeson. Yet you suffer for both actors in what turns out to be a bizarrely miscast and deeply disappointing evening.

This duo make a ludicrous spectacle: the six-foot four inch Neeson, who looks as though he could tear a telephone directory in half with his bare hands, and Hollander - here doing his over-familiar Dinky-toy petulant toddler routine - who would need to stand on several volumes of the telephone directory to get mouth-to-mouth with his strapping lover. As the career of Alan Ladd so eminently proved, one advantage of Neeson's more regular medium, the movies, is that you can disguise inequalities of height by furtive use of ditches and boxes. But in the perpetual long-shot of theatre, there's not so much room for cover up. Hollander is so inhuman and mechanical as Bosie that the pair keep reminding you of a ventriloquist and his dummy. Equip this Lord Alfred with a monocle and you'd have what looks like the late 19th century's answer to Ray Allen and Lord Charles: "Say 'bottle of absinthe', Bosie!" "Gottle of agsinthe, gottle of agsinthe.," It would, of course, have to be something classier than the proverbial beer.

Neeson, by contrast, could run masterclasses in stage presence. As anyone who saw his performance as the powerful sexy stoker in the New York transfer of Anna Christie will testify, commanding attention in a theatre comes as naturally to him as commanding the best table in certain restaurants must. The electricity he generated with his future partner, Natasha Richardson, made the relationship between, say, William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in Body Heat look almost stand-offish.

The chemistry between Neeson and Hollander, by contrast, fails utterly to warm this Almeida production transplanted to the proscenium-arch Playhouse. It begins at zero and climbs into negative figures. Which is a bit of a handicap, given that Hare's theme - continuing a preoccupation evident in his last two plays, Skylight and Amy's View - is the power (for good and ill) of consuming love. The drama is shaped on a structure of two acts, whose points of contrast and comparison are brought out with intelligence and delicate lyricism in Richard Eyre's production. Both halves speculate about a moment in Wilde's life of which little is known.

The first act admits us to the tragically temporary cocoon of the room Wilde took refuge in at the Cadogan Hotel in the tense hours between the collapse of his libel case against Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, and his own arrest. Here, with virtually nothing new to add to our perception of the case, Hare addresses the big question of why Wilde did not take the opportunity (allowed him by the authorities) to flee to the Continent.

The second act shows Bosie all-too-shiftily willing to do a bunk from a life of squalid, penurious exile in Naples with his disgraced lover and assorted young fishermen ("We can't live on cock," one of the more concise and euphonius of the lines Hare has put in Wilde's mouth). Here, Bosie, in a more than mildly self-serving fit of principle, picks at the scab of why Wilde - in many ways a strange candidate for gay iconhood - avoided declaring the whole truth about their love when he was in the dock. At the same time, consistency being something you leave to the hoi polloi, Bosie is seen repositioning himself as a born-again heterosexual, wriggling out of a relationship that cost Wilde everything (not least his ability to write), and implying that a pay-off from Mummy of pounds 500 should just about settle the bill. In both acts, true friendship is represented by Robert Ross who, in real life, was far more complex, admirable and substantial than the anguished, decent figure poor Peter Capaldi is required to flesh out here.

Neeson does a creditable job in the Cadogan Hotel episode of showing you a man under appalling strain attempting nonetheless to behave with grace, nonchalant good humour, and stoic indifference to his foreseen fate. Ordering a meal with an epicure's attention to the luxuries of detail, Hare's Wilde wants to distend and savour this last moment of the otherside of the delicate monied membrane that separates him from the lynch mob. The nobleness of life is to accede to the narrative one has written for oneself. We see Wilde the generous tipper, on the verge of an existence where he would have to cadge the money for such gestures. Neeson, in both halves of the evening, rather overdoes the head-thrown-back, I'm-addressing- posterity pose, but he gives excellent glimpses of the shredded nerves under the glittering highwire act. The play itself, though, is very poor. The air it has of saying something original in pointing out that, via Wilde's downfall, England was symbolically expelling an Irish socialist, is quite unearned. It's all been done before, with much more penetration and a real ear for Wildian wit, in Terry Eagleton's Saint Oscar. Jude Law's brilliant performance as Bosie in the Stephen Fry movie helped you see that, because of his background and his hating, hateful father, he too was a tragic figure. Thomas Kilroy's recent play The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde goes further and hints that the doting Oscar was not a valuable alternative to the father, but his damaging continuation in reverse.

Here, thanks to the script and Hollander's performance, which is like watching a petulant baby throwing food from its highchair, Bosie is, in the main, a monster of apopletic pettishness and aggrieved calculation. The essence of Wilde was his generosity of spirit, not a virtue David Hare is unduly burdened with. The scene between Wilde and A E Housman in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love speaks far more eloquently about what is simultaneously noble, tragic and paradoxical about undeluded infatuation than does this entire play where it's all boiled neatly down to Bosie standing for the kind of man whose governing principle is power and Wilde for the kind of man who is governed by love.

Hare and Wilde are a creative mismatch. Consider how differently each of them would treat the oddly comparable situation of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor. What a wonderful subject that would have been for Wilde's marvellously unpinched or point-scoring genius.

A Hare play about Wilde proves to be a bore: how one wishes there could be a Wilde play about Hare.