Sartre’s 1954 play, translated by Frank Hauser, is based on Alexandre Dumas pere’s original, written in 1826 shortly after Kean had died. Born in 1787, Kean made his Theatre Royal Drury Lane debut in 1814, his performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice rousing the enthusiastic crowds to near-rioting. His many other Shakespearean roles at the same address – including Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear - were legendary. According to Coleridge, seeing the diminutive Kean act “was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”.
However, Kean’s private life of drinking, gambling and womanising took its toll on his talent. His last stage appearance, at Covent Garden, was on 25 March 1833, playing Othello to his son Charles Kean’s Iago. He broke down during the third act, crying “O God, I am dying” and passed away two months later. According to promotional material for the new production of Kean, the actor’s “private life is a public performance, a tragic-comedy about a man with an insatiable appetite for romantic adventure, an ego as big as a stage and an inability to rescue himself from jeopardy.”
South African-born Sher is best known for his own classical performances, many of them for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including The Winter's Tale, Cyrano de Bergerac, Richard III, Stanley, King Lear, The Roman Actor, The Malcontent and Othello. He was last seen on stage in another portrait of a real-life man, 2004’s Primo, which he wrote himself based on the memoirs of Primo Levi. After its premiere at the National, it ran at Hampstead Theatre and transferred to New York. Sher made his directing debut at the RSC with Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe, which transferred to the West End last summer.
Sher is joined in the cast of Kean by Sam Kelly, Joanne Pearce, Robert East and Jane Murphy. The production is directed by former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble, designed by Mark Thompson and produced by Thelma Holt. Ahead of the West End, Kean opens first at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, where it runs from 29 March to 7 April 2007, and then visits Bath, Malvern and Brighton.
- by Terri Paddock