Review: The Misanthrope, Comedy Theatre

“Jesus Christ, you wonder why
I want to curl up and just die”

Try as I might, I was hoping not to be too misanthropic about this production of The Misanthrope, but all the talk of misanthrophy has left me somewhat of a misanthrope myself. It was one of those difficult experiences where it was hard to work out whether I really hadn’t enjoyed the play or if it was just the general experience of the most fidgety couple in the world in front of us forcing a constant search for a decent view, the realisation that we’d actually got quite poor seats despite being expensive (£35 for 3rd row of Royal Circle) and the feeling that we were the only sober people at the party, such was the raucous laughter at every other line. Either way, I was perilously close to leaving at the interval, but stuck it out to the end.

Molière’s Le Misanthrope has been translated and updated to modern-day here by Martin Crimp and follows Alceste (Damien Lewis) a disenchanted playwright whose resolution to reject society and all its hypocrisy and shallowness, is challenged when he falls in love with Jennifer (Keira Knightley), a fame-hungry American filmstar. A timeless enough story, but one made problematic by the unlikeability of Alceste and Lewis’ performance which I found at times to be insufferable. Part of the problem is also in the script though: this is an incredibly self-aware translation, stuffed full of cultural references and one particularly galling joke about people paying £50 to see any old shit on the stage. For me, this just led to a form of mugging on the stage, Lewis might have well have just said ‘nudge nudge wink wink!’ at times.

It’s written in verse with rhyming couplets appearing every so often, which jarred at first but one soon becomes accustomed to it, but I did not like the constant heavy-handed references back to the source which was exacerbated by the performance of much of the second half in French period costume. It’s under the auspices of a fancy dress party, but it just felt to me like a copout: if you’re going to update Molière, then just do it, there’s no need to signpost it this heavily throughout the performance.

Acting-wise, it was nice to see Tara Fitzgerald get something to do with a few meaty scenes, after being somewhat sidelined in A Doll’s House earlier this year, and I rather liked Tim McMullan’s critic-turned-wannabe-playwright, desperate for approval. And Keira Knightley was good, with a consistent, passable American accent and an easy feel to her presence on the stage. Indeed there are no weak links in the cast which is commendable, but due to the material, I felt there was precious little opportunity for them to really shine.

This will probably serve as many a talking point over the festive party circuit, so I’m glad I’ve seen it, and indeed I am keen to see some more of Molière’s plays, but I cannot say that I could recommend this to anyone, not at the prices they are asking.

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