Category Archives: The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope, Comedy Theatre, London SW1

  • From The Times
  • December 18, 2009
  • Benedict Nightingale

Keira Knightley as Jennifer in The Misanthrope

Keira Knightley: lacks the assurance that more time on stage may bring her

The would-be lovers in Molière’s comedy are a blunt Parisian who enrages sophisticates with his compulsive honesty and a gorgeous young flirt who bitches about them behind their backs.

But Martin Crimp’s often witty, amusingly rhymed reworking of the play whisks both of them from 17th-century France to today’s smart-set London, making Damian Lewis’s Alceste a surly playwright who hates Stoppard and “David f******* Hare” and turning Célimène into Jennifer, a glamorous Hollywood actress played by Keira Knightley.

She catches the waywardness, occasionally the steel behind the velvety manner, the narcissistic love of attention, but not the authority to explain how she can dominate a gathering by more than beauty. Partly the reason is physical. She’s so wispy she could fit into an umbrella stand. Partly it’s a want of vox, partly a lack of the assurance that more time on stage may bring her.

As for Lewis, he’s the fierce obsessive, the pale-faced absolutist happiest when denouncing triviality, hypocrisy and a human race he wishes was extinct. But Alceste’s contradiction is that he loves Jennifer, who is trivial on principle. Hence he comes to seem a bit mad, a pale-faced stalker determined to transform her into someone she isn’t. The central irony of Thea Sharrock’s production is that the principled truth-teller is also a self-deceiver.

In his avidity to update, Crimp sometimes diminishes Molière.

Yes, there are entertaining references to Derrida, post-modernism, long-lensed photography and artists who love excrement. Yes, there are sharp lines like (of a director in LA) “he’s a born-again, low-carb, high-maintenance, hysterical Californian”. But in Molière’s original the poet Oronte actually tries to get Alceste imprisoned for badmouthing his literary efforts. Here, he’s a theatre critic, mischievously renamed Covington and played with slimy pomposity by Tim McMullan, who feebly threatens a libel suit. I wouldn’t say that Crimp succumbs to the knowing insularity that he and Alceste condemn; but the stakes are never as high as in Molière.

Yet Alceste himself does seem the ambiguous figure he should be.

He’s paranoid, self-righteous but also correct about a Britain in danger of sinking giggling into the sea, taking Knightley’s pretty Hollywood star with it. Neither moved me. I didn’t care too much about either’s fate. But they did keep me engrossed for two hours.