The Philanthropist, premiered in 1970, was not Christopher Hampton’s first play but it was the one that established him. He went on to deliver on his promise with Savages, Tales from Hollywood, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and, in more recent years, The Talking Cure, as well as myriad translations and screenplays.
Four years ago, the Donmar thrillingly revived Tales from Hollywood, Hampton’s imagined life of Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath, who died of a freak accident in 1938. Now, with equal authority and under the assured direction of David Grindley – who, of late, seems incapable of putting a foot wrong despite a hectic rate of productions including Some Girls, Journey’s End and What the Butler Saw this year – it reclaims this earlier “bourgeois comedy”, which Hampton wrote as a variation of Moliere’s 1666 classic The Misanthrope.
Instead of centring on Moliere’s pessimistic Alceste, Hampton shifts the attention to his good friend Philinte, here named Philip, the philanthropist of the title, who is engaged to the conceited and somewhat shallow Celia. On (bizarrely) the same day that the prime minister and his cabinet are assassinated, a dinner party attended by all three – as well as an arrogant writer, a sexually predatory student and a wallflower female peer – provides the catalyst by which all of their relationships are altered.
As the likeable Philip who “hasn’t even got the courage of my lack of convictions”, Simon Russell Beale finds himself in strikingly familiar territory. In 2004, he played a university don puzzled by ordinary life in the National’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1973 comedy Jumpers. Hampton also sets his story in the closeted world of higher learning, where academics score easy intellectual points off one another. But whereas in Jumpers, Russell Beale’s character was a professor of philosophy, here Philip’s area of expertise is philology, the humanistic study of language and literature – his scholarly debates (and word games) are far more accessible though his loneliness and misplaced love for his beautiful but unfaithful lover is no less endearing.
Russell Beale is supported by a crack cast including a cool Anna Madeley as Celia, a cynical but soft-centred Danny Webb as his colleague Donald and a suavely rambunctious Simon Day as novelist Braham. They flit around each other on Tim Shortall’s cream-coloured set with its floor-to-ceiling case of blank-spined books, a runner-board of jumbled letters picking out anagrams of venal sins between the scenes.
The Philanthropist starts with a bang (a literally mind-blowing opening scene in which, Pirandello-like, three characters dissect a playscript) and ends with a prop-related flicker of hope. It’s a startling and highly enjoyable piece. All thanks to the Donmar, Grindley and his cast for delivering it back to us in such sublime shape.
- Terri Paddock