The Judas Kiss explores two pivotal moments in Oscar Wilde’s life – how did you choose those two incidents?
I knew that I didn’t want to write a broad biographical play. I felt I could go deeper by going less wide. So I concentrated on two decisions which seemed to me both quite mysterious and very unexplored. Before his trial, Wilde stayed and faced the music in London when everyone was begging him to flee. As Yeats later observed ‘I have never doubted even for an instant that he made the right decision, and that he owes to that decision half of his renown.’ And then in Italy after prison he returned to Alfred Douglas, even though, in De Profundis, he had written the greatest prose of his life about why he must give up Douglas altogether. You may argue that chance plays a greater role in most peoples’ lives than choice, and often I’d agree with you. But in Wilde’s case there really were these moments of fatal decision.
Some of the most prevalent themes of the play; celebrity, notoriety, sexuality all feel incredibly contemporary. Was it a conscious decision to write such a resonant piece and are these contemporary parallels something you look for when tackling a historical narrative?
I’ve always had a very strong feeling about Wilde, who, we must remember, was an Irish socialist. At university I wanted to do a dissertation about Wilde, and I was told by the Cambridge English faculty that Wilde was ‘not serious’, and that I would make myself a laughing stock if I tried to take him seriously. I expect I was drawn to Wilde as a teenager because he saw all bourgeois morality as an organized hypocrisy. But, contrary to what most people believe of him – they think he’s a cynic – on the contrary he replaced that morality with one of his own. He had an ethic of boundless generosity. He identified completely with Christ – for instance, he opened his pockets to every beggar he passed.
What do you think it is about Wilde that means he’s constantly performed?
Exactly this quality. He sees past the charade.
How factual an account of events is the play or did it all spring from your imagination?
Wilde deplored what he once called ‘the monstrous worship of facts’. My play is true to the events – Wilde did hole up in Cadogan Hotel, and his affair with Alfred Douglas did end disastrously at Posillipo – but otherwise I felt free to imagine exchanges of which we have no record. Nearly all the dialogue is mine, though occasionally I smuggle in an irresistible line of Wilde’s like ‘I hope to survive the winter. After that, Tunis, rags and hashish!’
Neil Armfield is no stranger to The Judas Kiss, having already directed a production of it in Australia in 1999.
The Almeida took a theatre in the West End for the first London production, and Richard Eyre directed. The play then transferred to Broadway. It featured Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander, and Peter Capaldi played Robbie Ross. Then, a year later, Neil directed the play in Sydney with Bille Browne as Wilde. The Belvoir Street Theatre, of which Neil was artistic director, has been much the most interesting theatre in Australia for twenty years, and Neil is one of Australia’s greatest directors, as anyone who saw Cloudstreet knows.
With Wilde, did you find it daunting to try and write dialogue for a man so renowned for his way with words?
Clearly, I had a very particular take on Wilde. I wanted to dispel so many of the clichés that have accrued. In particular I didn’t want to write Wilde pastiche, I didn’t want him drawling out bon mots at every opportunity. I hated the prospect of Wilde spouting lines the audience knew already. And remember, the play shows the privately exposed side of a man who took great care more usually to hide behind a public mask. I don’t believe in imitation at the best of times. Theatre is like painting, it’s not like photography: the aim is not verisimilitude. You’re aiming at a portrait, and your own style is as much part of a portrait as the style of the subject. As Picasso said when someone complained his portraits were insufficiently ‘life-like’, 'Oh yes, and how many people do you know who are made of pigment, exist in one plane and can be hung on a wall?’
How will playing The Judas Kiss to today’s audience be different from when the play premiered in 1998? Is the play any less relevant in today’s world?
One teenage suicide in five is still about sexuality. Consider how hard it is to come out as a rapper, or as an athlete, look at lives of gay men and women outside metropolitan centres in the West, or indeed outside the West altogether. Some things never change.
You have had such brilliant actors perform in your plays over your career. Do you ever find yourself writing with particular actors in mind for your characters?
No, I don’t write with anyone in mind. But I’ve been very lucky to work with some actors who’ve run like a thread of gold through my life: people like Penelope Wilton, Judi Dench, Kate Nelligan, Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave and Bill Nighy. Each time it gets richer, because you start from a better base of understanding. You raise each other’s game.
How important do you find the space in which your plays end up being performed? Also when you are writing for a particular building or stage does this have any bearing on what you write?
I think I’m quite often wrong about this sort of thing. Plenty was written for the 900-seat Lyttelton, and I felt at the time it needed the epic dimension you can get from those large-scale resources. But when Hattie Morahan played Susan Traherne last year in the studio at Sheffield, it worked on its own terms. Stuff Happens in Toronto transferred from a 90-seat theatre to a 1,000 seat theatre. What matters is the way the scale of the director’s understanding, and how good the actors are.
You have directed much of your own work and also performed in your own plays. Does this impact on your writing when you will also be involved in realising the production?
When I started in the theatre, then playwrights like Harold Pinter and John Osborne were often actors first, much to the obvious benefit of their writing. And we were all in awe of Brecht’s achievements. Like Granville Barker, he exemplified the idea that the playwright should also master the other disciplines of theatre. However I have to admit it was a moment of Grade A liberation when Howard Davies did his production of The Secret Rapture in 1988, and I realised I had no need to go on inflicting myself on my own work. Since then, I’ve been fabulously well served by good directors, and chosen for myself just to direct the odd play by Wallace Shawn or Joan Didion or Bernard Shaw – for pure pleasure.
You've been at the forefront of British theatre and new writing for your whole career. How do you feel the theatre landscape of new writing has evolved in this time?
Like everyone who enjoyed the freedom extended to young playwrights in the 1960s and 1970s, I was allowed to get on with it and make my most crashing mistakes in public – more than a few of them at Hampstead, I’m afraid. The dramatist was trusted. So I abhor what’s become of new writing culture – the whole apparatus of readings and development and interference, which seems at the same time to sap energy and to steal control. I thought it significant that, a couple of years ago, the first new play at the National Theatre to credit a dramaturg in the programme fell to pieces in the Second Act and was almost an hour too long. Playwriting’s a vocation, not a career. However, that said, I am amazed at how many gifted young writers are managing to evade the gun-towers and crawl out under the wire. In particular, we have a dazzling generation of women dramatists. The best three plays I saw last year were all by women.
Many of your plays tackle head on the most contemporary politics, news and institutes that influence our lives. Do you feel it is the playwright's duty to write about these topics?
No, I don’t think there’s any duty at all. Playwrights should write about whatever they like. Nothing is more teeth-grinding than an insincerely conceived topical play. Brochure theatre, in fact. On the other hand, there’s a kind of concentration and perspective when contemporary history hits the stage which I find incredibly exciting.