Review: A rugged Wilde wrestles with loss

FIRST NIGHT: The Judas Kiss Playhouse Theatre
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The Independent Online
THERE was more than a touch of Hollywood in London last night. As Leonardo DiCaprio thrilled film fans in Leicester Square, down the road at the Playhouse Theatre literary London gathered to see Liam Neeson in the world premiere of the latest play by David Hare.

The Almeida Theatre production, directed by Richard Eyre and going straight into the West End, was watched by an audience that included sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, director Sir Peter Hall, novelist Ian McEwen and actors Michael Gambon and Ian Holm.

They saw a play about one of Hare's recurrent themes - betrayal. It revolved around two episodes in the life of Oscar Wilde shortly before and after his imprisonment: the ultimate betrayal of their love by the narcissistic and petulant Lord Alfred Douglas, and Wilde's own betrayal of the truth in court.

The casting of the star of Schindler's List and Michael Collins as Wilde was intriguing. Neeson was last in an English production in Manchester 12 years ago.

His portrayal broke with a long and arguably tired tradition of a camp, effete playwright. Neeson is powerfully built and ruggedly handsome and Hare gave him no epigrams and few witticisms.

Instead, we had a memorably affecting portrayal of a man struggling to come to terms with his many losses. His desperate clutching at the hand of a friend hints at his loneliness while his young aristocratic lover samples the local fishermen.

Intensely touching is his lament for his children: "Even though I left to travel down the darkest East End street to smear my mouth against men whose names I never knew, men whom I never saw, pressed against walls in the dark, in the rough dark - yet every night I came home and told my children stories of ghosts, of fairies, of monsters and of enchanted lands."

Neeson's performance is compelling from first to last.