In Martin Crimp’s translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope — which transposes the action and plot from the 17th century to the present — the central story is so utterly hit or miss that it’s no wonder the reviews of the latest production at the Comedy Theatre in London have been either raves or, more commonly, total pans. “People speak highly of a pile of shit if they get dressed up and paid fifty quid to see it,” says Alceste, the show’s protagonist, and there’s so much truth in that, it got the biggest laugh of the evening. It’s not, however, true of this particular show. While The Misanthrope certainly has its flaws, its two stars manage to save it from mediocrity.
I’ll admit, I had my doubts about this production, the first stage show Keira Knightley’s ever done. Would she be as wispy and ineffectual as reviews claimed? In her role as a twenty-two year old American starlet, was it merely a case of art imitating life? And how would her American accent stand up? In a show about a playwright (Alceste, played by Damian Lewis) whose hatred for the hypocrisy of social convention and celebrity culture, who falls in love with a shallow, backstabbing Hollywood beauty, it seemed as if the show’s producers might well be cashing in on the very love of celebrity the play disdains by casting Knightley as Jennifer.
Apparently I had forgotten that she can also act like nobody’s business. The script, written largely in uneven verse, so often calls attention to its own clunky rhyme scheme that it is often only Knightley’s and Lewis’s inflection which saves it from itself. Meanwhile, Knightley’s facial expressions and passion save Jennifer from being a skin-deep parody of Knightley’s own success. She becomes, before your eyes, a young and vulnerable girl who, at the end, is left suddenly, deeply aware of just how much she’s staked on a losing bet — not because of Crimp’s writing, but because of the stark and silent pain on her face.
Lewis, meanwhile, carries entirely the opening scene, a long and winding back and forth between Alceste and his friend John which lays out Alceste’s moral and philosophical stand. It could easily have been incredibly dull, but such is Lewis’ charisma that he not only kept it interesting, but kept this viewer, at least, both delighted and enthralled.
Much of the rest of the cast, unfortunately, is entirely forgettable. Tara Fitzgerald, playing Jennifer’s erstwhile drama teacher, Marcia, is more shrill even than Knightley’s New York film star, and while there are times this works in her favor, at other times it’s grating to the point of being boring. It’s difficult to know how or even why any of these people know each other and notably absent is any explanation of how a second-rate playwright like Alceste ever met someone like Jennifer to begin with.
Alceste himself, with his continued insistence that Jennifer forsake the world she knows and the career she’s worked for in favor of a man who’s only proven himself jealous and abusive, is frequently unsympathetic. While he might blame this on his predilection on truth telling, it seems clear that Alceste is willing to be honest with everyone but himself. In the end, The Misanthrope is a show in which everyone is wrong, even the title character this script supports. The decision to move the action from the original to the present day is interesting and effective, true to Molière’s belief that comedy should reflect the contemporary, but the use of verse is trite and often feels forced. Despite the absorbing philosophical debate it presents, with less gifted leads, this show would have been better worth missing.