We spied down from our eyrie yesterday upon the small stage at the Comedy Theatre to see a starry cast exchange high calibre performances, albeit with a sense of cramp derived only in part from the frock-coat of Molière. The play was a modern re-creation by Martin Crimp of The Misanthrope, clever rather than moving, replete with 1990s references to Tom Stoppard being passé.

Moliere

The dynamic of the original, in which Molière himself played Alceste, amid rumours of his emotional ricochets among his three actresses, lies not in the relationship ─ which seems to open (“You’re the only one here who understands me,” says Jennifer after briefly stunning everybody by her journalistic treachery) and close (“Let’s escape from all this hypocrisy, go away to the country and make babies,” responds Alceste). Rather, it hovers around Alceste as the sole figure of integrity in a brittle world of log-rolling, mutual back-scratching mediocrity which is universal and undoubtedly contemporary.

Because Molière was fighting entrenched, predatory interests ─ government, Catholic Church ─ with only the veiled and intermittent support of the Sun King, he had to have an escape route. This is achieved by not taking the part of the defiant Alceste but, instead, of the catty mob. It is thus expedient to paint Alceste as a pepperpot, a ‘misanthrope,’ rather than the clear-sighted satirist he, like Molière, actually is.

Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley rehearsing The Misanthrope

This production adheres closely to this disappointing failure of nerve, if to little else.  Damian Lewis flings himself about sinuously but doesn’t abrogate the pepperpot rôle with any conviction.  Tara Fitzgerald, released from her bespectacled, white-coated, focused, forensic boffin  scenario in the entrails of Waking The Dead, several times electrified the whole theatre from her limited part.  Keira Knightley, burdened throughout with the accent of an American movie star, carried off her more dramatically mobile rôle with angular, elegant panache.  The stage managed to refresh itself ─ with music, with candlelight, with costume ─ from time to time, the actors emitted aplomb and the fireworks fizzed, but the latter were more verbal than dramatic.

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