ComedyTheatre, London SE1
Opened 17 December, 2009

If I were like the critic character in Martin Crimp’s Molière adaptation, I would now sneer at Keira Knightley’s performance in her stage début.  But the fact of the matter is that she does a very good job in the role of Jennifer, an American movie star beloved by the title character, Alceste, who in this version is a prominent writer. After a tentative first scene, in which her natural bodily ease seems to be suppressed by an excessive awareness of the scale and mechanics of stage movement, Knightley gives a confident and nuanced reading in the role. The irony of the production’s bankability resting on a British movie star playing an American movie star is only one of dozens during the evening. Another is that Jennifer’s embittered former acting teacher is played by Tara FitzGerald, herself a former screen and media “face” of some standing, but one who clearly relishes having moved beyond that box.
If these are knowingnesses on the part of Thea Sharrock’s production, Crimp’s script is stuffed with them. There are repeated references to how this all sounds oddly 17th-century, in fact like Molière (the final act even includes a costume party with a Louis XIV theme), and to the arts/media world. Crimp is a very clever writer, and this is one of his most ostentatiously clever works. It would play like a dream on a European stage... but who’s going to bother re-translating an English translation of a French play? And as it is, the culture portrayed is simply alien to us. Ours is not a world where movie stars hang out with public intellectuals, and if you can find me a British tabloid journalist who pays any attention to postmodernist and post-structuralist theory I’ll eat my unfinished doctoral thesis. Without such plausibility, all the allusions and dropped names begin to seem self-referential and smug. As I say, though, it’s well done, with Crimp’s revisions of his 1996 script now including nods to Banksy, Simon Cowell and the “dead white male” epithet applied to critics. (I have to say that the vain, self-regarding Covington, despite his recognisably portmanteau name, bears no resemblance to any critic I know... though perhaps to one or two people who are currently employed as critics.)
Sharrock directs with a sensitivity towards the springy verse of Crimp’s text; Damian Lewis is nicely spiky as the pathologically plain-speaking Alceste (and even suffers a ginger-hair joke into the bargain), and it is heartening to see such a deliberately unsettling double-twist ending to a comedy on a West End stage.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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