Mockingbird Theatre, under the Artistic Directorship of Chris Baldock, is the latest theatre company to emerge on Canberra’s burgeoning theatrical landscape. The choice of David Hare’s play, The Judas Kiss, for its inaugural production is a canny one.
Some years ago, The Canberra Repertory Society presented Gross Indecency, a play by Moises Kaufman dealing with the three trials of Oscar Wilde resulting from his homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas.
So the opportunity to experience Hare’s take on the events which followed these trials, with his play The Judas Kiss, which has not previously had a Canberra production, is welcome, as is the opportunity for Baldock to reprise his much-praised performance as Oscar Wilde, honed in previous Melbourne productions of both The Judas Kiss and Gross Indecency.
Hare’s play focuses on the efforts of Bosie Douglas to persuade Wilde to stay in London and fight the charges in an effort to salvage both their reputations, whereas a former lover, now the executor of the rights to his plays, Robert (Robbie) Ross, wants him to flee London immediately.
Baldock’s performance as Oscar Wilde is indeed impressively nuanced and thoughtful, though surprisingly less flamboyant than Wilde’s reputation might suggest. He delivers Wilde’s witty ripostes with flair and authority, and in the static second act, when he’s largely confined to a chair; his depiction of Wilde’s destructive intransigence is riveting, especially in the scenes with Robbie Ross, powerfully portrayed by Patrick Galen-Mules.
There are Impressive performances also from Arran McKenna as the hotel manager, and Meaghan Stewart and Cole Hilder as the maid and waiter, all of whom manage to be interesting, even when spending long periods in the first act simply standing and observing. Stewart and Hilder also manage their well-staged nude scene at the beginning of the play with admirable aplomb.
Charged with a similar task at the beginning of Act 2, when he is required, as Bosie’s sailor pick-up, to play almost his entire scene naked, Benjamin Balte Russell manages to achieve considerable impact by investing his character with captivating Mediterranean insolence.
Liam Jackson is much less convincing as Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, the object of Wilde’s affections and the reason for his downfall. Though he looks well, scowls, poses and delivers his lines efficiently, Jackson has not yet the presence or demeanor to convince that he is the product of an aristocratic upbringing or indeed, the poet he keeps insisting he is.
His interactions with Wilde come across as mere petulance, and lack the chemistry necessary to convince that Wilde is sufficiently captivated by him to abandon his career.
The Judas Kiss is the first main-stage production by Karina Hudson, a recent graduate of the Mockingbird Acting Studio’s directing course. It’s a challenging, wordy play, with potentially static scenes which present significant challenges for any director. Hudson copes with these challenges well, drawing good performances from her actors, but overlooking small details which potentially draw the viewer out of the play.
Even though the venue is intimate, the actors still have to project their voices, and surely wealthy aristocrats would wear polished shoes. What hotel manager worth his salt would allow his maid to bring un-ironed serviettes into the room and fold them in front of the guests?
In addition to directing, Hudson also designed the settings for this production, which, even taking budget limitations into account, contain ambiguous elements which often work against the effectiveness of her production.
Hare has set the first act of his play in an upper-class London hotel in 1895 with Wilde, at the peak of his notoriety, being attended by the hotel manager and two of his staff. They provide silver service for Wilde and his guests. For this scene Hudson has the walls draped with untidily hung, drab white calico.
A large gilt frame hangs in the middle of the back wall with a suspended light on either side. Antique furniture, including a chaise lounge, floor rugs and other props decorate the stage, but any sense of opulence is dispelled by the dreary white calico.
For the second act, set in a rat-infested hotel in Naples, most of the first-act furniture and props are removed and the floor rugs are replaced by raffia mats. But inexplicably and most distractingly, the calico drapes, chaise lounge, gilt frame and lights, remain, even though the action is meant to be taking place in a different country and different hotel.
According to the program notes, Mockingbird Theatre’s admiral ambition is to present the best text-based contemporary and classic plays from around the world. Hopefully it will also aim to present these texts in settings which enhance rather than distract from them.
The Judas Kiss
The Courtyard Studio – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Friday 27 July 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 5 August 2018
Information and Bookings: www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au
Image: Chris Baldock (Oscar Wilde) and Patrick Galen-Mules (Robert Ross) feature in The Judas Kiss – photo by Brenton Cleaves
Review: Bill Stephens OAM