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theatre review

A scene from The Judas Kiss.Cylla von Tiedemann

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at Rupert Everett.

When it comes to star-gazing, Everett is a wondrous sight to behold as Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss. True, younger theatregoers may not be familiar with his lustre, but anyone who remembers the dashing British actor in such films as Dance with a Stranger and My Best Friend's Wedding will be hard-pressed to recognize him in the stunning incarnation of Wilde now treading the boards of Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre.

In fact, Everett plays two Oscar Wildes in this touring version of David Hare's play, a remount of the acclaimed production that premiered in London in 2012. Hare paints a moving double portrait of the great Irish playwright, wit and gay martyr: the first depicting him at the height of his fame and notoriety, the second at the sad ebb of his career and life.

In Act 1, Everett's Wilde, tall and firmly fleshy with long, wavy brown hair, is still the celebrated London author of The Importance of Being Earnest, even though his world has just come crashing down around him. It's 1895 and Wilde is holed up at the Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge, his rash attempt to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel having backfired; instead, the court has found Queensberry's accusations of sodomy to be true and ordered Wilde's arrest on charges of "gross indecency."

Robert Ross (Cal MacAninch), Wilde's former lover, wants him to flee to France. Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. Bosie (Charlie Rowe), Wilde's current lover and Queensberry's son, wants him to stay and fight. Wilde orders a bottle of wine and a lobster lunch and refuses to decide either way, deflecting the anxious concerns of both young men with his arsenal of witticisms.

Act 2 takes place in 1897 near Naples, Italy, where Wilde and Bosie have reunited after the writer has served two years' hard labour. The man we see now is strikingly changed: Everett's Oscar has grown grey and haggard and seems to have shrunk in size as, slumped in a chair, he wearily chain-smokes. He looks, in fact, like the moribund Aschenbach of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, slowly wilting in the sun while the blooming Bosie and his latest bed partner, a well-endowed young fisherman (Tom Colley), strut about naked in the afterglow of sex. But the signature Wilde wit is still there, only now tempered by the painful wisdom that pervades his last writings.

We know Wilde to be a tragic victim of Victorian morality and hypocrisy, but Hare also presents him as a tragic victim of love. We see how his infatuation with Lord Alfred Douglas not only brought about his downfall but continued to hobble him in exile, when he jeopardized his only source of income – an allowance from his estranged wife, Constance – by breaking his contract with her and seeing Bosie again. And what makes it sadder is that the love is unequal. Hare's picture of Bosie, played with pretty-boy arrogance by Rowe, is all ego and self-pity; he's forever claiming that he's the one who has suffered the most. Everett's Wilde, so visibly broken by prison, listens to this with no more than an indulgent smile. He's still besotted, even though he knows the boy is his betraying Judas.

British playwright Hare (Skylight, Stuff Happens) wrote The Judas Kiss in the 1990s, when it served as an ill-fitting vehicle for another movie star, Liam Neeson. Everett has been the force behind this revival – a precursor to an Oscar Wilde film he has in the works – and in the process he's revealed it to be an emotionally rich drama illuminated by Hare's customary insight and humanity. It's also beautifully written. Apart from the final passage of De Profundis, spoken at the close of the play, it's near-impossible to separate Wilde's real words from those Hare puts in his mouth.

Neil Armfield, an Australian director known for his work with Geoffrey Rush, has crafted an elegant production. Dale Ferguson's draped sets evoke both the heavy luxury of the Cadogan and the airy sparseness of the Italian retreat. Wilde the aesthete would be pleased with Sue Blane's tasteful period costumes and the poet in him would appreciate Rick Fisher's lambent lighting.

Everett gets solid support from his co-stars. MacAninch, repeating his London role, is poignant as the faithful Robert Ross (grandson of the Canadian politician Robert Baldwin), who still carries a torch for Wilde. Alister Cameron, also from the U.K. cast, serves up lobster and sympathy with equal devotion as the Cadogan's manager. Elliot Balchin and Jessie Hills, as a randy bellboy and chambermaid, provide some vigorous heterosexual behaviour to counterpoint the homoeroticism of the second act.

It is Everett's show, however, and he goes well beyond giving an incredible embodiment of the large, languid Wilde – those heavy-lidded eyes! Those voluptuous lips! – to capture his paradoxical nature. He is both the cutting critic who glibly skewers Dickensian sentimentality and the author of The Happy Prince who is distraught at being separated from his young sons. He's the man who declares life, not love, is the delusion, and yet is the living proof of how deluding love can be.

This is a rich and revealing performance whose most immediate comparison may be Timothy Spall's as the eponymous painter in Mike Leigh's film Mr. Turner. Everett will no doubt make a great Oscar Wilde onscreen; he's already a great one onstage.

The Judas Kiss runs to May 1 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto (