Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Review: The Misanthrope, Comedy Theatre, 14 Dec 09

First a head-up: I do like Keira Knightley. I think in the hands of good directors she can give very good performances. So unlike 90% of the blogosphere I went to the theatre with a positive opinion of her and willing to cut the girl some slack.

We saw a very preview-ish preview of The Misanthrope. They were still trying things out with the lightning and the actors still seemed unsure of their choices about the characters. I can predict that the play will get better and better along the run. Knightley seemed like the new girl, yes, not in terms of her ability but in the sense that it was clear she was the one with the least experience onstage. That should also fix itself within the next weeks of playing.

This particular version of Moliere's play (for many his masterpiece & I have to admit my personal favourite as well) is Martin Crimp's adaptation from 1995, with the necessary tinkering to adapt it to 2009 of course.

It's all a bit childish, really and I must admit I was amused by the pettiness of some of the play's attacks on out Tabloid Society; Crimp delivers some very funny turns of phrase and the verse works perfectly. There's an adolescent delight in his own cleverness that I enjoy, even if it's not proper memorable theatre. Delight, yes, there's a lot of that, and a lot of fun but I think the play loses gravitas and importance through this version and it's hard to fully engage with a story where the characters doesn't seem to have so much at stake in the first place. It doesn't seem like Alceste is a honest hero whose desire for truth at any cost might get him into trouble. You never feel that his convictions are that important to him, just that he lives to annoy and oppose, just because it amuses him. That makes his infatuation with Jennifer - who seems to embody all he detests but not really - lose a lot of his punch.

It's a solid cast but some of the acting choices I wasn't so keen on. In part it might be the writing but Damian Lewis' Alceste is not the champion of honesty we were waiting for. He is childish and rude, not straightforward, and Lewis plays him in a way that's easy to caricaturize him. He is not very sympathetic, specially when he turns jealous boyfriend to Jennifer. We see him as shallow from the beginning so his fall from grace doesn't affect us as it should. Lewis is a very good actor, and very funny, and he could make an extraordinary Alceste - see him in Friends and Crocodiles - if he chose to play him with some more weight to his philosophy. And I could have done with less histrionics.

On the other hand Keira Knightley is not as good an actor as Lewis and yet her choices were, in my opinion, smarter. Through Knightley we see Jennifer as someone that's more like Alceste than not and she has the intelligence to highlight this, giving us reasons why he fell in love with her in the first time. Jennifer is smart, sharp, and sees things as they are, and it's a very conscious choice for her to follow the rules of the game. There's hypocrisy to her, but Knightley makes sure that the audience understands it's a kind of hypocrisy radically different to that of people around her and Alceste. There's a cruel streak to her that's quite ugly but she charms her way out of it. Alceste's demands on her are absurd and many a time the audience finds themselves siding with Jennifer.

Thea Sharrock surrounds her two leads with a strong supporting cast. It's wonderful to see Tara Fitzgerald on stage again, after her impressive performance in the Donmar's A Doll's House; here she plays Marcia, Jennifer's old acting teacher, and her performance is positively larger-than-life. Even if it's no acting challenge, Fitzgerald adds no little technique and charm to her part.

Of all people on stage that night Dominic Rowan was the one to make most of an impression on me and my theatre-going companion, despite his limited stage-time. He seemed most at easy with the verse and gave a calm, seemingly effortless performance. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future. Kelly Price offers a great performance as tabloid journalist and professional traitor Ellen, and seems - with Dominic Rowan - like the most relaxed of them all onstage. The supporting cast is all very efficent but still struggling to really shine, unpolished. It must be hard handling with characters that are more caricatures than actual people.

I loved the set, huge and cold, and some of the direction and design was very clever - specially the ending, with a very adequate mood of a zombie movie. It was less of an "event" that journalists might want to see in it, indeed it was proper theatre, even if some of its elements weren't totally satisfying for me.

There's is something just obvious enough about casting Keira Knightley in a play that deals with and ridicules our obssession with celebrities and shallow fame. The play's delight with its own cleverness steps over the line of being too much but never crosses it, never goes into Rupert Goold Territory of Obvious. So it's still good fun.

Martin Crimp writes about this revival.

The Guardian.
The Times.
The Independent.

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