Date January 20, 2010 | Map

I admit: we went to see the Misanthrope because of Keira Knightley. Well, not exclusively, because the prospect of experiencing Martin Crimp’s version of Molière was an appealing idea, too. And appealing it was.

I am usually not prepared to pay full-price tickets for the best seats in the theatre, especially when those seats are within an absurd price range of almost £90! So we settled for balcony tickets and relied on Theatremonkey‘s comments for the best of the worst, and, as usual, we were not disappointed: seats C10 to C12 were great; almost no handrail interfering with the view, high enough above those in row A and B, unless they were leaning forward – which they did, because their same-price seats were obviously in a worse position. Ok, legroom in this part of the Comedy Theatre was limited, but what can you expect from a balcony? Answer: usually less comfortable seats than those we had.

The Misanthrope Ticket

The Misanthrope Ticket

The play was, obviously, focusing much more on words than stage action. At some point quite early in the first act, I started to realise that some lines of Martin Crimp’s adaptation were in verse, just as the original, but with updated expressions to adjust the play to modern times. And after an additional while the coin dropped: the whole play (or at least the best part of it) was actually in verse! Very often, though, this was difficult to detect, because the rhymes were mostly built right into the middle of fluid lines, apparently allowing for natural conversations to unfold, acted out by a stellar cast. Very impressive.

Lead actor Damian Lewis was the centre of attention throughout the play. My fellow theatregoer claimed to detect a very tiny speech impediment, which I perceived as a natural part of his characteristic voice. Whenever Alceste aka Damian was on stage, our eyes and ears were glued to the action. Even though he sometimes did not quite know what to do with his hands – interestingly something that the unimitable Billington criticised Keira Knightley for.

So how was Keira? In the first half, I found her rather bland, I must say. Quite superficial, and the strong American accent wasn’t particularly appealing either. Little did I know that she would improve massively after the intermission, and this is most certainly because of the script itself, requiring her to actually be bland at the start. Keira was indeed very convincing in the second half, as if she stood on the stage all her life, even though this production was her West End debut! Not bad at all for not having taken the traditional route of formal training.

The whole play was held together by Crimp’s robust adaptation. Brilliant references to the original Molière or to some of his colleagues from the world of modern theatre provided ample laughs, and exploration of a range of issues provided depth. Messages were built in throughout the play, but was there a main message? Maybe the one that Alceste and Célimène display at the end: Célimène shows Alceste how to play the game of social norms, despite voicing her true opinions brutally and deceptively behind people’s backs. This goes far beyond what any of the other characters do, who subject themselves to social conventions in an attempt to live as friction-free as possible. Impossible for Alceste, who upholds his idealism. And we as the audience need to decide what our positions are.

Guardian review
Independent review
Telegraph review

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