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February 09, 2010

Keira Knightley as Celimene? David Womersley argues this is a return to the play's origins: The Misanthrope - Molière in a version by Martin Crimp

Posted by David Womersley

Molière's The Misanthrope
translated/version by Martin Crimp, directed by Thea Sharrock
Comedy Theatre, London
17 December 2009 - 13 March 2010

This production of Molière's masterpiece of 1666 has, of course, attracted most attention because of its casting. Keira Knightley on stage! Rarely before can the drama pages of the broadsheets have been so anxiously scrutinised in sixth-form common rooms up and down the land. Hard luck on Damian Lewis, fine actor though he is, who in this context has been reduced to a merely incidental asset ("you know, that ginger-haired bloke who played Soames in the Forsyte Saga").

But this is clever, and not just eye-catching, casting on the part of the play's director, Thea Sharrock. In Molière's original version Alceste is to some degree overshadowed by Celimene, and resents the attentions she receives and bestows. The overshadowing of Lewis by Knightley in the press coverage parallels the plot of the play in a way which prepares the audience for the action - it is no surprise when the drama opens with Alceste/Damian Lewis bursting on stage in the most filthy of moods. Wouldn't you, in his shoes?

This off-stage/on-stage linkage also parallels the premiere of the play, when the actress who took the part of Celimene was Armande Béjart, Molière's estranged wife, and the playwright was rumoured to be having an affair with the actress playing Eliante, while at the same time preparing the ground for a future liaison with the actress who played Arsinoe. There must have been as much drama in the green room as in front of the audience.

Still, it is brave of Knightley to have taken on the role of Celimene, whom Martin Crimp has updated as Jennifer, a spoilt Hollywood starlet. More timid actresses might have seen satire, rather than compliment, in this invitation; a sort of back-handed reassurance along the lines of "Don't worry, darling, you'll barely have to act at all". So all the more credit to her for taking the part, in which she is exceptionally good.

She demonstrates her range particularly well in Act Five. Invited by Alceste to throw up her life of pleasure and glamour and join him in what he proposes as a bucolic idyll -

Quit the city. Forget work. Turn our backs
on all of this. Begin to relax.
Just the two of us.
We can become anonymous.
We'll buy a little house
With a garden - trees - a stream - whatever.
Then we could think about starting - don't you see - a
Family together.
- her wonderfully-varied and modulated howl of "No, no, no, no, no, no, no . . ." drew one of the biggest and most appreciative laughs of the evening. A few moments later, the anguished look she threw over her shoulder as Alceste abandons her and walks off stage was also the evening's most moving moment.

Damian Lewis, however, is superb throughout. He is the best speaker in the cast of Crimp's very loose version of Molière's couplets, understanding exactly how to deliver the mixture of rhyme and free verse that Crimp has cleverly employed (unlike Dominic Rowan, as John, Alceste's friend, who several times came to grief and never looked at ease).

Lewis is also a vivid physical presence, impatiently bestriding the cluttered stage. He seems to be perpetually on the brink of violence, and when it eventually erupts at the end of the play as he overturns a table, on the night I went he did so with such abandon that some of the stage properties ended up in the front row of the stalls. It was a particularly nice touch to see him, as he took his bow, glance inquiringly and mouth an apology towards the woman whose evening had suddenly taken an unexpected turn with the arrival of several plates and cups in her lap.

Crimp's version of the play is excellent. It would be wrong to call it a translation - it is much too free an updating of the French for that. But in its broadest conception - the transferral of the action to the modern world of celebrity - as well as in its verbal detail, it is wonderfully successful. Crimp is too wise not occasionally to employ some of the broader arts of the theatre. For instance, a deep guffaw went up when Alceste delivered this particular swipe against the complacency of modern theatre audiences:

People will speak highly of a pile of shit
if they've dressed up and spent fifty quid to see it.
Lewis's momentary pause and glance at the audience, eye-brow half-raised, was terrific, and the largely well-dressed audience, most of whom had spent at least £50 on their ticket, felt themselves at once skewered and stroked. But this medium, in Crimp's hands at least, is genuinely flexible and has great tonal range.

The greatest virtue of this production, however, is its pace. The whole thing, including a generous interval, came in at well under two hours. This partly reflects the pared and stripped-down nature of Molière's play, which has no padding in either its vision or its construction. But it was astute of Crimp to preserve that quality of momentum, and even perhaps slightly to enhance it (I haven't counted, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were fewer words in his version than in the original). In doing so, he demonstrates how powerful the sense of velocity can be in the theatre, in raising the audience's appetite and engagement. (Contrast, too often, RSC productions, where entirely spurious stage business is often introduced. One imagines that the purpose is to increase the spectacle, but these interludes normally serve only to disconnect the audience from the drama.)

Astute, too, was Crimp's decision to sharpen the ending. In Molière's original, Philinte and Eliante follow Alceste off stage and try to make him drop his plan to withdraw from society altogether. In Crimp's version, when John attempts to follow Alceste off-stage, protesting that "I'm worried about him", Ellen coolly has the last word:

Relax, John, just relax. Don't you see
we're better off without him.
With that wintry reflection on the banishment of real satire from modern British culture, we left the theatre just as thick snow began to fall in central London.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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