Friday 18 December 2009

The Misanthrope - Comedy Theatre

[Written for]

Once in a while, you have to stop and marvel at commercial theatre. In the midst of a season packed out with grim forced jollity and horribly saccharine “family” shows, some lunatic decides to put on Martin Crimp’s translation of Moliere’s venomous little play and then succeeds in making it the hottest ticket in town by attaching it to the stage debut of Britain’s most bankable starlet (second most bankable, by numbers, apparently, after Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame).

Hitherto, I’d never really got the Keira Knightley thing. I don’t know who her constituency is. No one I know ever seems to have anything positive to say about her, her screen acting is frequently derided, and women seem to take exception to her face. And yet she seems ever-present and able to command huge fees for her work. Entering the Comedy Theatre at last night’s press night, I got the feeling that I was the only person in the building who was excited that they were going to see something by Martin Crimp.

And, so here’s the surprise headline – it turns out Keira Knightley is a pretty damn good stage actress. Even if she has been given a massive postmodern bunk-up by the text.

Crimp’s adaptation of Moliere’s tale, allegedly transposes the action to contemporary London. At least that’s the theory. However, because he isn’t complete re-writing of the play, this is a bizarrely unrecognisable London full of intellectuals, gossip journalists familiar with Derrida and Barthes, and yet only one playwright who rails against the superficiality of the contemporary scene.

What is immediately recognisable, though, is the cult of celebrity. Knightley plays Jennifer, an American actress currently the toast of London’s fashionable set. She has embarked on a relationship with Alceste, a perpetually angry playwright who loathes the social scene, spouts sixth-form Marxism, and is perpetually jealous of Jennifer’s flirtatious ways and rumoured string of lovers.

Sadly, Damian Lewis makes for a pretty rum misfit. Fashionably dressed and clearly a regular gym-goer he doesn’t look as if he objects to anything contemporary London has to offer. But it’s his performance that really finishes him off. Sure, Alceste isn’t meant to be exactly likeable, but Lewis turns well-aimed, humorous disgust into petulant, high-pitched apoplexy.

Knightley, on the other hand fairly radiates star quality. She starts a little uncertainly, but once the script has given her time to warm up – no one really shines doing exposition – the near-perfection of her casting comes into its own. In part it’s the game it plays with reality – any actress could have stood there and looked beautiful, but virtually no one else could have brought so much of the baggage of fame with them. And she’s no slouch at the part itself. Well, partially. The text calls for someone iconic, but also a character who is believed to be slutty on screen and off. Knightley plays it more coquettish than sexually voracious. The crucial point is that while using her sexuality to get on in the world, Jennifer is in fact completely faithfully devoted to Alceste. Knightley might let too much of the subtext in a bit too soon, making Alceste’s gnawing jealousy look a lot more like rampant paranoia as a result. However, when the revelation comes that Jennifer, far from being a superficial airhead, is in fact far more penetrating and astute in her judgements than even Alceste, Knightley’s combination of shimmering intelligence, beauty, defiance and fear is about as effective as you could hope for.

Of the supporting cast, Dominic Rowan as Alceste’s sounding-board mate speaks his lines very well. Tim Mullan as Covington, the theatre critic (ho ho) who has written a play, disappoints my inner theatre-nerd by playing the part precisely as written: as a stock comic character. He’s fairly funny, but as fits the text, his character doesn’t really map onto any actual critic or their place within theatre’s ecology. Much better is Tara Fitzgerald who looks like she’s having enormous fun as Marcia, Jennifer’s drama school mentor, with designs of her own on Alceste, playing her as an almost psychotic luvvie of the worst sort.

Beyond the acting, Hildegard Bechtler delivers a pleasingly elegant impossibly high-ceilinged hotel room set, which by neatly echoing the play’s seventeenth century origins looks like absolutely nowhere in London at all, but I guess that’s fine. Amy Roberts, on the other hand, serves up a set of costumes that are almost all disastrously ugly and mostly wrong for the characters.

Indeed, it seems a bit uncertain at times if Thea Sharrock actually has the faintest idea what she’s doing with the play or why. The actors all come at the text’s rhyming couplets from different directions and wind up in different places. I don’t think Crimp’s adaptation is perfect, but it’s very hard to assess the script when some actors are effortlessly pulling it off, while others are mangling their lines to such an extent that they sound unplayable. Damian Lewis, as I’ve said, is atrocious casting, and his relationship with Knightley is pretty much entirely carried by her. He just shouts in her general direction. You have to do a lot of work to recognise the love story that is underpinning events. And yet the whole just about manages to cohere, if only because the events in the script keep happening and you can see what the play is meant to be doing, even if this production isn’t actually doing it all for you.

For all that, though, there’s still something remarkably pleasing about seeing an expensively dressed press night audience so comprehensively ridiculed from the stage and knowing that they’ve all paid exorbitant prices for the privilege.