At a night at the theatre in Canberra, watching The Judas Kiss, I am dipped into the past—in a couple of ways.
We are here to see The Judas Kiss, part of the story of Oscar Wilde, the great Irish literary icon from ages past. Written by David Hare, the play was originally performed in London in 1998. Here it is given new life by Mockingbird Theatrics, a Melbourne theatre company beginning life again in Canberra—and it’s a rather good beginning.
Set in two parts, the play is about Wilde’s life, and as history has shown, its demise. I’ve long been intrigued how this once-lauded poet, playwright and novelist, and great wit, seemingly allowed himself to fall into destitution, so was interested to learn more. This was a man who was convinced, at the prime of his career, to sue his young lover’s father—of considerable social standing—for libel, after he accused him of sodomy. Given that they were in fact (male) lovers, and that he had a number of other rattly skeletons in his closet, one would have thought that action a little foolhardy. Unsurprisingly, in the last few years of the 1800s, the suit failed and Wilde was indicted for gross indecency.
This brings us to the setting of the first act of the play, where Wilde must decide to flee from England (with the tacit agreement of the authorities), or stay put and fight. If you know your history, you’ll know which way he chooses.
Chris Baldock, an actor of substantial pedigree who has played the role previously, is a powerful and mesmerising presence on stage. He shines as Wilde, and brings great depth and nuance to the role. He vacillates between being upstanding, flamboyant, sentimental, naively love struck and defeated, and we swing along with him. He stands out among a strong cast of local actors, who breathe authenticity into their roles. Liam Jackson, as young Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie to his friends, is believable and plays his role—self-serving, petulant, and shallow— with confidence. The other cast members are also committed to their roles and convincing in their portrayals, notably the serious but caring Robbie Ross (Patrick Galen-Mules). In some cases maintaining such confidence must surely be challenging when totally naked.
This production is directed by long time actress now director Karina Hudson, in her new role as co-artistic director of Mockingbird Theatre. It is a play heavy with dialogue and with little onstage action, so the pacing and character development are all important and pass the test. The staging is simple but effective. A stage swathed in calico and dotted with period pieces in the first act depicts a rather lovely hotel room, transformed in the second where it becomes spare and decrepit, echoing the fate of Wilde himself.
It’s an auspicious and strong beginning for Mockingbird Theatre, and it’s worth a trip to the Courtyard Studio to see the play.
But there’s more to this production than the production itself—at least to me.
Up there on stage is a piece of furniture with which I have a great affinity. It is there to evoke the days of a grand hotel in the 1890s, but it’s actually not quite that old. I know that because it belonged to my grandparents, on my Dad’s side, so was more likely early 1900s, but very close indeed. It’s a tray mobile, perhaps of mahogany, perhaps of teak, a quaint piece from a past era, designed to sit neatly to the side but ready to be wheeled out as required, side pieces flipped up, to serve guests a wee dram or a spot of tea. It spent all of its life until the last few weeks in Newcastle where it served for decades in a room high on a hill looking out across Newcastle Harbour and watched over family adventures and the Stockton Bridge being built, and then moved to other Novocastrian locations as my parents did.
I have an affliction where I find it incredibly difficult to part with items from my past, or the past of my family. When we moved Mum out of her house recently, we rehoused much but I had trouble parting with this piece. I couldn’t fit it in my house and I knew I had to let it go, having kept too much from parents and grandparents already, so when a lovely girl from a local theatre company in Canberra needed a stage prop, I knew it was time to move it on.
It seemed fitting that it’s now seeing life on the stage of the small and charming Courtyard Studio, the smallest of the three theatres at the Canberra Theatre Centre. The same theatre where many years ago my own daughter spent weeks of her youth treading the boards with Free Rain Theatre, first as a 10 year old ‘Scout Finch’ and then a tragic and disabled ‘Joe Egg’. My dad loved watching her perform in those plays. It seems a fitting and serendipitous way to farewell a piece of my family history, in a new role. (Although, it must be said that I don’t think he would have enjoyed those naked bodies romping around the stage. Not at all. Perhaps it’s just as well that the tray mobile was covered with a tablecloth, so it couldn’t see all that was going on around it.)
I hope that piece of furniture continues to live a useful and interesting life, and maybe one day again house a lovely set of Stuart crystal glasses and a decanter, just as it did in days gone by.
The Judas Kiss is on at the Canberra Theatre Centre until 5 August.
It’s worth catching. If you do, give a little wave to that old tray mobile at which Oscar Wilde takes his lobster lunch.