Review – Keira Knightley’s “Misanthrope” – Comedy Theatre

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Keira Knightley on the West End is one of the most hyped “event theater” moments of 2009, and it was with bated breath I went to see a preview (read: semi-affordable) of “The Misanthrope.” Now, Moliere is just brilliant; his witty couplets leave Fram bleeding by the wayside. I had high hopes for this new translation leading to a good night out. High hopes were very appropriate given my 2nd tier seats – according to the barman, the space had previously been used as storage, and God knows that in my many visits to the Comedy I’d never seen the stage from high up. Still, seated only one row ahead of the very last in the house, I had a generally unobstructed view of the stage, so there was only the quality of the acting to worry about and not “can I enjoy this with only 1/3 of the theater visible” as I’ve experienced on other occasions.

Actually, though, there was a wee matter of the script. Fortunately, it has been updated pretty well, with references to post-Modernism, deconstruction, Derrida, feminism, the media, and the transience of fame. The structure and feel of Moliere has been – well, not entirely preserved, but rather “paid homage” to, with lots of little couplet-y rhymes thrown in and a nice iambic meter causing the script to flow trippingly off the actors’ tongues (occasionally perhaps a bit too much so), and a few references to the Baroque thrown in to remind us all of its origins (though I doubt anyone in the audience besides me had a clue who Marais was, despite his music playing at nearly every scene change). I’d say it smelled like Moliere, which was more than enough – the story itself is very good and the script did not need to be slavish in order to feel right.

This Misanthrope is set in the media-frenzied now, with Alceste (Damian Lewis) an unappreciated playwright with a dedication to utter honesty in one’s relations with others. This causes his best friend (Dominic Rowan) a great deal of amusement as Alceste’s standards are completely undermined by his brainless affection for Jennifer (Keira Knightly), an American actress who lives for attention (and appears to have got most of it by her half-naked film appearances). Comedy turns are provided by the critic who seeks Alceste’s approval of his script and the feminist professor (Tara FitzGerald) who claims concern for Jennifer while seeking Alceste’s attention, but mostly the play is about a grumpy old humbug who wants to love someone for what he wants her to be and not for what she really is. It’s timeless, really, and I found Alceste’s self-righteousness just as recognizable today as it was 300 years ago.

Sadly the weakest cog in the machine was Knightley herself, who managed to get her accent right but failed to do the acting. Her “I love you, Alceste” was as limp as a dead goldfish floating in a tank, and when she wasn’t being coy or making fun of people, she just failed to hit the mark. I wasn’t sure to what extent the script was to blame for this – she’s not supposed to be very intelligent or deep – but I think the character really deserved more texture than she got. Jennifer is a bit of Legally Blonde‘s “Elle,” but with a lot more snark, and Knightley wasn’t managing to make the character believable, getting the dumb but not much else. Had she perhaps not had that much time to rehearse and get into the character – or was it her lack of stage experience showing? The weakness she showed in her confrontation scene with her former teacher (who really owned the stage during their catfight) was so notable that I’m convinced it was her own inexperience showing. Perhaps her performance will gel more over the course of the run.

Fortunately the rest of the performances and the show itself was more than enough to make up for a less that star powered turn by the lead female. The supporting cast was charming and sharp; the set was gorgeous; the costumes nicely done (especially in the over-the-top fancy dress ball at the end); and, well, the story was VERY funny. I would, in fact, consider this a perfect Friday night’s entertainment – chances are I’ll come back to watch from the floor – if I can get seats I can afford (I’d spend about 30). It’s practically a must that I sit somewhere else given that the squeaking of the seats in the back row caused me not to hear much of the dialogue of the first two scenes. While I got my twenty quid’s worth for my tickets, consider yourself warned.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, December 11th, 2009, and it was about 2 1/4 hours straight through. Security is ridiculous and overbearing and offensive to normal theater goers, so consider yourself warned. The show continues through March 13th. My guess is that it will probably really be worth watching some time in January, so no rush. For an alternate view, I offer the wit and wisdom of the West End Whingers.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Keira Knightley’s “Misanthrope” – Comedy Theatre”

  1. NEd Ludd Says:

    Well, one of the problems with this production is that as the title indicates, it’s Alceste who is the lead role – while the casting means that his girlfriend inevitably upstages him.

    Dominic Rowan was exceptional, I thought. And the production neatly avoids taking sides – without spoilers, I thought the ambiguous ending was neatly turned. Star of the show, though, is the lively translation.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I did enjoy the translation, the words, quite a bit, and it’s my number one reason for wanting to come back and see it from the stalls. Thank God for the strong casting of Alceste!

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