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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Misanthrope
Comedy Theatre      Winter 2009-2010

This show has a Hollywood star, a popular TV actor and the air of undemanding culture and prestige about it, so it's probably critic-proof, and it hardly matters that it isn't actually very good.

Moliere's comedy is about a playwright who takes perverse delight in the fact that he isn't successful, since that proves that the cultural world has as little taste and sense as he likes to believe.

His only problems are that he is madly in love with the biggest social butterfly of them all, and that she and her friends are perfectly happy being shallow, insincere and backbiting, and therefore are immune to his criticisms.

Martin Crimp has modernised the play so that Alceste (the only one to retain his original name) is still a playwright, but his beloved is a Hollywood starlet better known for taking her clothes off than for any actual talent, and the rest of the cast includes a tabloid journalist and a feminist academic.

These are adequate equivalents to Moliere's character types, though they don't add much and are, anyway, too easy targets for the satire to have much bite.

Crimp has retained Moliere's mode of rhymed couplets, though his meter wavers and he is prone to strained rhymes like sycophancy/bankruptcy, too far/fatwa, lover/over and (not in a Brooklyn accent) talk/New York, that all grate on the ear.

In keeping with the updating, he liberally peppers everyone's speech with casual obscenities, definitively distancing this version from any tone of elegance or wit the original had.

Rhymed couplets are difficult to pull off, especially in a realistic modern setting, and director Thea Sharrock has not guided her actors through this problem, so that they all recite rather than speak with any naturalness.

(Ironically, the only actor to achieve any naturalness of speech or behaviour was understudy James Hogg, filling in for Dominic Rowan as Alceste's most sensible friend.)

As Alceste, Damian Lewis (who we know from television to be more than capable of realistic acting) seems particularly handicapped by the rhythm and rhyme, reciting all his lines with the earnestness of one who has painfully memorised them by rote.

This flattens out the character's frequent outbursts of passion, anger or irony, limiting what you sense he was trying to make a complex characterisation.

As the talentless Hollywood star, Keira Knightley looks dangerously thin (and has been dressed by Amy Roberts to accent her boniness) and unfortunately has a voice to match.

The character has several big scenes that depend on our sensing her disguised intelligence or at least her sexual energy, and in only one - a climactic argument with Alceste - does Knightley really come alive and transcend pallid recitation.

Tara FitzGerald plays a character Moliere created as a secretly lustful prude and Crimp has turned into a bitter, jargon-spouting feminist. In either case the character is a cliché, but FitzGerald does invest her with more reality and passion than any of the other secondary cast members manage with their stereotypes.

Those who just want to see a movie star and have a relatively painless brush with a classic will get what they've come for. But the play and the performers can be so much better than this.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Misanthrope - Comedy Theatre 2009
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