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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Misanthrope

This so called rage/ Sounds like something on the 17th century stage. —Alceste
The Misanthrope
Keira Knightley as Jennifer and Damian Lewis as Alceste
(Alastair Muir)
It is undoubtedly a brave choice for established film star Keira Knightley to launch her stage career in London with a play in verse by a French seventeenth century dramatist, but Martin Crimp's 1996 updating of Moliere's comedy of manners moves to the twenty first century as a play about hypocrisy in the film and entertainment industry. Visual and sound clues hark back to the origins of The Misanthrope with the opening music heard on a harpsichord but quickly switching to the cacophony of heavy metal rock and the set, an elaborate gilded drawing room furnished with some very modern designer pieces, as well as the classical gilt framed and silk upholstered chairs.

The opening scene has the play's central character, Damian Lewis as playwright Alceste, debating the lack of sincerity of their acquaintances and their tendency to gossip, with his phlegmatic friend, John (normally played by Dominic Rowan but by John Hogg on the night I saw). The rhyming couplets are mostly clever and fun, if occasionally predictable and conveying a sing song quality, an oddity on today's stage. The entry of the theatre critic Covington (Tim McMullan) bearing an amalgam of the names of the London theatre critics Michaels Billington and Coveney is fun as we enjoy his creepy, flattering tongue and his sense of fashion, tassels on his shoes, bleached patches on his jeans and blazer with handkerchief flourish (more Coveney than Billington dress inspired or maybe another critic!). He tells us "We critics are artists too!" as poacher turning gamekeeper, he reads the first act of his play for Alceste to praise, but that isn't how it turns out from the lips of the ultra-honest Alceste.

We have to wait for the entry of the star playing Moliere's Celimene re-named, Jennifer, a truly beautiful but superficial, fake and shallow actress. Physically she does not disappoint. She is every bit as beautiful and breathtaking as her screen image, if not more so although all the men and male critics are unnecessarily harping on about how thin she is. Initially she wears black silk dungarees and later with the excuse of a fancy dress Louis XVI ball, she has a beautiful wig and a black taffeta crinoline ball gown. As the part calls for no depth nor intelligence, it isn't the most challenging that Ms Knightley could have chosen but she carries it off very well, especially speaking the dreaded verse in an American accent, which I thought unnecessary.

The various hangers-on of Jennifer's coterie are from less to more ridiculous as she flirts with these ghastly admirers: the repulsive critic Covington, Nicholas Le Prevost's grasping agent and Chuk Iwuji's self congratulatory actor Julian. The irony is not wasted on us that Alceste has fallen in love with the kind of Hollywood celebrity he most detests. Damian Lewis is well cast as the relentlessly misanthropic author and holds our attention while not making us actually like him, although we may agree with much of what he says. It is his friend John we warm to for his easy going affability.

Kelly Price gives a nicely judged performance as journalist Ellen who puts her gossip column before her apparent friendships and I liked too Tara Fitzgerald's ballsy acting teacher Marcia, decrying Jennifer's near pornographic film acting. Alceste attempts the romantically happy ending by telling Jennifer he will forgive her the weaknesses and her riposte is the most enjoyable moment of the play.

Having guided Daniel Radcliffe through his stage debut in Equus, and now Keira Knightley into the West End, director Thea Sharrock can be trusted to deliver good performances from these new to stage actors.

Editor's Note: Crimp's adaptation introduced another glamorous Celimene to the stage ten years ago: Uma Thurman. This celebrity casting made tickets to the small off-Broadway Classic Stage Company suddenly scarce as-- well, scarce as celebrity cast show tickets tend to be. Roger Rees plaed Alceste. Review

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The Misanthrope
Written by Moliere in a version by Martin Crimp
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Starring: Damian Lewis, Keira Knightley, Tara Fitzgerald, Tim McMullan
With: Dominic Rowan, Chuk Iwuji, Kelly Price, James Hogg, Nicholas Le Prevost, James Hogg
Set Design: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Design: Amy Roberts
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6637
Booking to 13th March 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st December 2009 performance at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1 4DN (Tube: Leicester Square)

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