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The Misanthrope - Comedy Theatre (Review)

The Misanthrope

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

KEIRA Knightley grabbed the headlines for making her West End debut in this updated version of Moliere’s 17th Century comedy The Misanthrope – but it’s Damian Lewis who steals the show.

Knightley is good, but Lewis is great – and both contribute to a fun, if frivolous, night at the theatre.

Set in modern day London, The Misanthrope finds Lewis playing Alceste, a famous British playwright, who has become disillusioned and angry with the hypocrisy, shallowness and vanity of the contemporary world… and especially its worship of non-talent.

He vows to reject society, only to have his plans derailed when he falls in love with Knightley’s American actress Jennifer, who flirts outrageously with anyone who will lavish attention upon her no matter what they say behind her back.

Martin Crimp’s update of Moliere’s classic work has been criticised in some quarters for failing to appear contemporary – but the numerous pot-shots it takes at celebrity culture, tabloid intrusion and “here today, gone tomorrow” talent felt very contemporary to me.

While Alceste’s dejected playwright is often spot on with his scathing observations on humanity… even though he’s derided for daring to speak out against the hypocrisy and tacky culture that surrounds him.

With Lewis portraying him, however, he’s far from a mere grouch; but rather a fiercely intelligent, quick-witted and hopelessly charismatic man who finds his passion for Jennifer hopelessly at odds with his own standards.

Indeed, the only real flaw in Lewis’ attempts to maintain our sympathy for Alceste come not from the actor himself, but rather from Crimp’s unfortunate decision to have him resort to violence during one explosive confrontation with Jennifer. You could argue she had it coming… but it’s a potentially fatal move that could deprive the audience of anyone to really sympathise with.

And therein lies the biggest problem with The Misanthrope as a whole. For a production that exists to expose the shallowness of celebrity, and which is largely inhabited by a viper’s pack of gushing actors, directors and critics, it struggles to really forge a lasting emotional grip.

Knightley’s vivacious Jennifer is the classic case in point. Initially intriguing and apparently naive, she later turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing – someone who lives for the spotlight, who needs to be loved (superficially rather than for her heart and soul), and who will do anything to maintain her fame.

Complete with a convincing American accent, Knightley is – by turns – feisty, playful, manipulative and – ultimately – bitchy. Her final moments confirming her as a stage actress of genuine worth.

And yet as the flawed object of Alceste’s affection, she’s actually quite a nasty character – and one that evenutally leaves us cold.

Likewise, her friends and colleagues… whether it’s Tara Fitzgerald’s acid-tongued former teacher, Kelly Price’s back-stabbing, career-first journalist, or Chuk Iwuji’s selfish actor who simply wants to get into her pants.

Alceste recognises one and all for who they are… but is mostly powerless to stop them. And therein lies the tragedy that awaits.

The Misanthrope is therefore an engaging, if distancing piece of work, sparsely directed by Thea Sharrock (it’s set within the confines of the same hotel room), but with enough wit and pace to keep audiences on their toes.

Crimp’s script, meanwhile, unfolds at a tremendous rhythmn which, in itself, sets some high demands upon its actors (all of whom rise to the challenge), while offering provocative asides at the expense of everything from the BBC to Tom Stoppard plays (a form of p**s-taking that could easily backfire if the quality wasn’t so good).

But it is, at the end of the day, a superficial work that leaves a superficial impression.

Lucky, then, that we have Knightley and, in particular, Lewis to ensure that this particular production lives longer in the memory than it might otherwise have done.

(This review relates to a performance on Friday, February 19, 2010).