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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE MISANTHROPE
at the Comedy Theatre

A HOLLOW SOUND
By NICK CURTIS

  (L to R) Kelly Price, Chuk Iwuji, Keira Knightley, Nicholas Le Prevost, Damian Lewis, Dominic Rowan/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

First thing's first: Keira Knightley makes a very accomplished stage debut in this oddly updated Moliere comedy. True, her role as Jennifer, a desirably nubile star in blockbuster films of little artistic merit, plays to Knightley's obvious strengths and her public persona. But she brings to it charisma, emotional range, an unflinching bitchiness and a credible American accent. And she seems more at ease with some of the more awkward aspects of this singularly peculiar project than her more theatrically experienced co-stars.
 
Thea Sharrock's production is a calculated bid to turn high culture into solid box office, its design and its cast list as sharp and glitzy as the world it purports to satirise. For writer Martin Crimp has transposed the co-dependent bitchiness and hypocrisy of Louis XIV's court in Moliere's original to the world of contemporary celebrity culture. The aristocratic Misanthrope Alceste is here a British playwright (Damian Lewis), enamoured of Knightley's flighty Jennifer while despising all she stands for and the agents, hacks, suitors and would-be gurus who hover in her impersonally opulent hotel suite.
 
Crimp gets to display his linguistic virtuosity in his spiky modern rhymes for Moliere's lolloping verse, and he and a fairly famous cast get to rail against fame's dominance over truth and art. (A false opposition by and large, if you ask me.) There's even a lecherous critic with literary aspirations, deftly played by Tim McMullan, who made the press night crowd chuckle smugly, and who will doubtless mystify future audiences.
 
The whole exercise is two parts self-congratulation, two parts self-flagellation, but despite its glossy veneer it doesn't really hang together. The sequence where Jennifer bad-mouths her whole social circle to a "friendly" reporter and is then shocked to see it all in print, rings particularly false. Alceste's rage never really convinces either. Lewis seems keen to evoke sympathy for him, although he's the most loathsome character on stage: a self-righteous "moralist" who hits his lover and fantasises about her being "blind or paralysed" so she would be dependent on him.
 
McMullan, and the likes of Nicholas Le Prevost and Tara Fitzgerald, do their impressive best to animate figures that Crimp concedes are "stock characters." The best performance of all is from Dominic Rowan as Alceste's friend John, who speaks the verse fluently and cautions everyone to just calm down. Wise words. Moliere's play is about the acceptable limits of behaviour and the problems of being authentic, and this updating is deeply phoney.
 
My enduring memory will be of Knightley in fancy dress for the closing party scene, a 21st-century stylist's take on a 17th-century courtesan, with a candyfloss wig, a raptor's grin, and a black dress that emphasizes her shockingly naked shoulders and slender, canted torso. Unfortunately, I'll remember how fabulous she looked, rather than the hollowness she was supposed to represent.
 

 


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