Theatre: How to turn a wit into a bore

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN AN introduction to his new play, The Judas Kiss, David Hare says the true subject is "not Wilde, but love; not Bosie, but betrayal". At first I thought this little cluster of "nots" and "buts" was merely disingenuous. The central characters are called Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas and the events take place in 1895 and 1897. But watching Richard Eyre's elegant if static production of The Judas Kiss at the Playhouse, you realise that Hare has indeed focused on the relationship between two well-known themes rather than two well-known people.

Hare's play takes off from two incidents. One is at the Cadogan Hotel when Love - or Wilde - has the opportunity to leave England before his arrest. The other is when Love has been released from prison and sits in exile in Naples. On both occasions, Betrayal - that is, Bosie - walks out on him. The symmetry appeals to Hare. There are trains to be caught, money is to be borrowed, exits to be made and debates to be held. Hare structures the key moments to parallel one another - notably the two kisses that Betrayal bestows on Love. It has a slick neatness to it.

The Almeida leads the field in packaging and this glossy production has the star of Schindler's List playing the victim of the Marquess of Queensberry's List. In Act One, Liam Neeson sweeps into an ornate hotel room, a bearish figure in a fur-lined green coat. His libel action has collapsed because Queensberry has a list of boys to testify against him. One fateful decision follows another. We ought to be wondering whether or not Wilde will catch the train from Victoria. As we watch the perspiring Neeson pace the elaborately draped bedroom we wonder what compels to keep his overcoat on.

The challenge for Neeson doesn't lie in catching the voice, look or physical mannerisms. He is well cast in that respect. The challenge lies in suggesting the quality of the man's mind. Neeson's effortful delivery gives the sense of someone speaking someone else's lines. The rhythms of his throaty honeyed tones have little variety. And we never glimpse the keen intellect. The character's physical torpor infects the play: Neeson spends a good deal of Act One, and nearly all of Act Two, slumped in a chair.

In Naples, his face is blanched, his hair is lank and greasy, and he has acquired a paunch. We have grown used to padding around Wilde's middle. Here it creeps into the dialogue. "What you are suggesting is"; "now I establish that"; "it seems to me"; "I can only say"; "the fact is", "I've wanted to say this for some time." It's as if the characters are permanently clearing their throats. As Neeson shares his views on passion, love and friendship; beauty, truth and the imagination; art, nature and England; morality, society and the world in general, we learn something entirely new about the greatest wit of the late 19th century. He was a bit of a bore.

He is clearly ill-suited to Bosie. When Tom Hollander's Bosie squares up to Neeson he stands face to face with Neeson's waistcoat buttons. They come from different plays. Hollander gives a shrill, preening, comic performance, full of petulance and exasperation, and with a strong whiff of Rik Mayall. But he has an alertness and mental agility that makes Wilde look sluggish. As Wilde's former lover, Robert Ross, Peter Capaldi looks a bony, uneasy figure, forced to stay rooted to the spot while Neeson maunders on. Best of all, in this inert evening, are the bustling hotel staff. Stina Nielsen and Alex Walkinshaw survive the play's fairly gratuitous opening sex scene - where cunnilingus is linked with an image of crucifixion - to put their clothes back on and give sparky performances. As the maitre d', Richard Clarke deftly serves up lobster with tomatoes, crushed garlic, tarragon and white wine in Wilde's own room. Wilde, in fact, went to the Holborn Viaduct Hotel for lunch, which was a more theatrical and courageous gesture. In this version, when Neeson sits down and tastes the lobster he "ooh"s and "aah"s in a way that reminded me strongly of Robert Carrier.

The third production in the Donmar Warehouse's "Four Corners" season, and the most interesting so far, comes from the innovative Scottish company, Suspect Culture, which boasts the talented David Greig as its in-house writer. A collaborative group that includes writer, actors, musicians and director, Suspect Culture has devised an artful piece about sexual relations and personal anxieties among a bunch of urban Scots. The four characters have moved beyond the spontaneity of their teens and twenties to a new hesitancy and ruefulness. Their Woody Allenish taste for self- examination allows them to pinpoint states of mind with attractive accuracy. One character is "not happy" but "content to be unhappy".

What distinguishes Timeless is the stylish mix of language, movement and music. Characters are given repetitive trademark gestures - a hand clutching a throat, a forearm brushing the air forward like a barrier, or palms touching both cheeks. These giveaway movements, or gestural leitmotifs, are performed with balletic precision. Against a backdrop of mirrored screens which revolve - suggesting the windows of a wine-bar - the play develops a patterned rhythm. It's as closely allied to Nick Powell's string-based score - there are four musicians on stage - as it is to Greig's incisive ironic text. The director, Graham Eatough, handles his excellent cast with flair. But the formal inventiveness doesn't always spring from the pressure of the subject matter. An awful lot of emotional baggage, for instance, gets hung around one picnic down on a beach.

A rare revival of The Surgeon of Honour (1635) by Pedro Caldern de la Barca fascinates for two reasons. One, it's a very good play. Two, it's hellish to do in a little studio theatre like the Southwark Playhouse. The strain of presenting a big story in a small room is matched by actors struggling to connect the casual, ironic, modern style of acting - which is second nature - to a fiery, pre-democratic world of rank and honour. The fit is as awkward as the costumes. As Judith Roberts's production heats up, the path several of the actors take leads them over the top. It's no fun. If only referees could patrol stages like pitches, running on with coloured cards whenever an actor overdoes it. Persistent offenders would be sent off. It would do more than any lottery grant towards bringing audiences back to theatre.

'The Judas Kiss': Playhouse, WC2 (0171 839 4401), to 18 Apr. 'Four Corners': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732), to Sat. 'The Surgeon of Honour': Southwark Playhouse, SE1 (0171 652 2224), to 4 Apr.