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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Kean
Apollo Theatre Summer 2007

The last act of Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off shows a theatre company at the end of a long tour, when no one likes anyone else and no one cares about the show anymore. Frayn makes it hilarious.

We should be so lucky.

Within a few nights of its opening, the cast of Kean, playing to less-than-one-quarter-full houses, give every impression of having given up, offering the kind of low-energy, by the numbers performances you might expect in the waning weeks of a long and dispiriting tour.

No one on stage connects to anyone else, no one seems to be listening to what anyone else says, and no one reaches across the footlights to connect with the audience. Every scene, every moment is played in a vacuum.

That this is unprofessional in the extreme hardly needs saying, and the special irony is that the play is a celebration of a charismatic actor and of the power of theatrical illusion.

This is Frank Hauser's translation of Jean Paul Sartre's adaptation of Alexander Dumas' fanciful mock-heroic melodrama about the electric 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, of whom Coleridge famously said that seeing him act was 'like reading Shakespeare to flashes of lightning.'

The real Kean was almost ruined by a scandalous affair with a married woman - Dumas and Sartre invent two fictional ones. While carrying on a liaison with the Danish Ambassador's wife, Kean is stalked by an adoring and persistent fan (No points for guessing which one gets him in the end).

Along the way, there's a lot of chatter (much of it Sartre's contribution) about illusion and reality, about whether Kean can feel real emotions or only act them, and about whether there really is a person behind the star image. And this, frequently presented in Wildean epigrams, could be both interesting and entertaining, as other productions (even the 1962 Broadway musical version) have shown.

But not here. Not only do all the bon mots fall flat, but the mock heroic picture of Kean himself is unconvincing.

One would think that Antony Sher, a fairly flamboyant and charismatic actor himself, would have a field day with the role. But he just lumps his way through it as dispiritedly as everyone else. Even the brief bits of Richard III and Othello we see give no hint whatever that Kean was a great actor (particularly noticeable since Sher's own Richard was one of the greatest of the last fifty years.)

Everyone else in the cast sleepwalks through the play and needn't be named and shamed. Ordinarily I would invoke Berkowitz's Law - When everyone in a play is bad, and bad in the same way, they're just following orders and the fault is the director's - and put all the blame on Adrian Noble.

But in this case, I think that for some reason, and despite the fact that those few people in the audience did pay money to see this, everyone involved has just given up.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Kean - Apollo 2007