Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 30 May
, 2007

For pity's sake, how much metatheatre can you cram into one evening? Theatre that uses itself as a metaphor (for what, doesn't much matter) may seem a recent, postmodernist phenomenon, but that's far from the case. Shakespeare was fond of it: "All the world's a stage", the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, and numerous other references including my favourite, from Twelfth Night, "If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction." So it's hardly surprising that one of the great 19th-century Shakespearean actors, Edmund Kean, should himself be used as an emblem for the human condition. Even the provenance of this play offers several layers: we are watching the 2007 revival of the 1971 English translation by Frank Hauser of the 1953 adaptation by Jean-Paul Sartre of the 1836 play by Alexandre Dumas père, whose protagonist was an actor who had died only three years earlier than that.

You can see what Sartre found to get his existentialist teeth into. His Kean is a man trying ever more desperately to define himself, and also to deny himself, both onstage and off. His Drury Lane performances as Othello, Shylock, Romeo, Lear and so on create one image for his audience, his drunkenness and womanising another for society and the media of the time. Neither may be real: he muses, "I sometimes wonder if 'true feelings' are not, quite simply, bad acting." Here, he both seeks to evade disaster whilst seducing the wife of the Danish ambassador, being pursued in turn by an infatuated ingénue and arousing the jealousy of the Prince of Wales, and also courts it by provoking fiancés, husbands, suitors etc, until whatever happens he cannot escape the web. And what does finally happen, happens during a performance of the last act of Othello.

This combination of untrammelled wildness and calculated artifice would naturally appeal to a writer such as Sartre in his quest for the core of our identity. The trouble is that amid the stagecraft and the Sartrean intellect, the force of nature that was Kean's hallmark gets rather lost. Can it be restored in performance? Does any contemporary actor even approach such an impact on our sensibilities? Antony Sher, here, can portray it, but we know that Sher is a thoughtful actor; he has long been fascinated by Kean both as an actor and an icon of celebrity outsiderdom (the gay, Jewish, white South African Sher identifying with the short, dark, illegitimate former fairground performer Kean), and certainly what he gives us is portrayal rather than being the role, as many commentators described Kean. In fact, the play begins with Kean performing the opening soliloquy of Richard III, a part which was also Sher's first great triumph – another cargo of metatheatre ahoy!

Nor, let's be honest, is Adrian Noble one of the great instinctive, flamboyant directors. He gives us a considered rendition, with some more (still more!) self-conscious theatricality, particularly in the final scene when Kean and his desired Elena – or is it Sher and Joanne Pearce? – almost step out of their roles for a moment. It can be immensely intriguing, but not for all tastes: I was becoming engrossed in the kaleidoscope of self-referentiality just as I know others were giving up on the whole affair. You may well react to the idea of a play about players by Jean-Paul Sartre just as Kean does when told, the morning after a drunken night before, that he has promised to play Othello's jealous murder of Desdemona, with his young admirer as the Moor's bride: a weary, sarcastic, "Oh, God, that'll be fun!"

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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