Adrian Noble’s new production of Kean starring Antony Sher as “the actor who never ceased acting” opened last night (30 May 2007, previews from 24 May) at the West End’s Apollo Theatre (See Today’s WOS TV News).

Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1954 tragi-comedy, translated by Frank Hauser, is based on Alexandre Dumas pere’s original, written in 1826 shortly after Edmund 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 renowned, fuelling the actor’s massive ego.

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.

While most overnight critics felt that Sher, one of his generation’s leading Shakespearean actors, is ideal casting for the legendary 19th-century tragedian, they were in disagreement over just how well he and director Adrian Noble rose to the challenge of reviving both Kean’s spirit and Sartre’s play – and indeed whether the play even deserves reviving. The romantic melodrama is described as an “intriguing curiosity rather than a neglected masterpiece” at best and “unalloyed displeasure” at worst.

Sher is joined in the cast by Sam Kelly, Joanne Pearce and Alex Avery, several of whom attract some favourable critical mentions for their performances. Kean continues its limited season at the Apollo until 18 August.

  • Michael Coveney for (three stars) – “Sher scuttles about like a wounded tomcat, topping and tailing the play with direct reference to his own hilariously brilliant Richard III and psychotically mesmerising Macbeth for the RSC. His gleam is manic, his physical presence a cunning amalgam of Kean’s pictorial gestures and absurd bombast. What he lacks, perhaps, is the killer charisma of the sexual predator – preying on women and audience alike – that certainly characterised Olivier’s Othello. All Kean’s roles have rolled into one, so that his jealous rows with the callow Prince of Wales (an assured West End debut by Alex Avery) echo the Falstaff rejection scenes with Prince Hal, and his seductive juggling of the Danish Ambassador’s frisky wife (a husky, Ingrid Bergman-esque Joanne Pearce) and a smitten apprentice actress (Jane Murphy, a cool and pretty colleen) implies an actor muddling the Windsor version of Falstaff with an over-aged Hamlet dashing between Gertrude and Ophelia. Mark Thompson’s design creates a gilded proscenium within the Apollo’s stage, and a lovely dissonance between the New Look frocks and evening suits and the mucky, romantic backstage world of lightbulbs and panic. Here, Sam Kelly’s jaunty dresser, peeping round doors, and Oliver Beamish’s camp wig master, fluffing up curls, keep the show on the road even as Kean is hurtling off the rails.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “If anyone was born to impersonate the 19th-century actor Edmund Kean, it was surely Antony Sher. He has the figure, which is small, and the energy, which is big. He can be fierce and feral and everything that made the great Edmund idolised as an actor and detested as a man. Yet I must admit that, when I saw him in Sartre’s updating of Dumas’ Kean, Sher wasn’t as forcefully magnetic as I expected. I’ve seen this more hilariously staged. But let me not suggest that Sher isn’t largely the mix of imp, poseur, ironist and confused thespian that Sartre created. He’s wry enough when he admits to not knowing when he’s acting and when he’s not, or when he wonders if “true feelings aren’t just bad acting”. He’s successful enough when he adopts a joke accent or launches into love charades with Elena. But why has the stage become a tiny prosc-arch affair, presumably a shrunken Drury Lane? It seems incongruous, given the modern costumes, and doesn’t bring the intensity that, when I saw it, the production needed.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “In yesterday's Telegraph, Antony Sher confessed that stage fright almost ended his career. Watching this deadly revival of Jean Paul Sartre's 1954 play about the great 19th-century actor Edmund Kean, one wishes the condition had lasted a little longer. If it had, we might have been spared a ghastly evening of tedium and pretentiousness. It takes a certain skill to make Kean's roistering life seem dull, but Sartre, adapting an earlier 19th-century melodrama by Alexandre Dumas père, triumphantly pulled off the tricky feat. Among a cast who seem almost as stupefied with boredom as the audience, there's a touching cameo from the ever-reliable Sam Kelly as Kean's devoted dresser. But even he can't save the show single-handedly. Optimistically described in a programme note as ‘a cerebral farce whose glittering surface looks back to Wilde and forward to Stoppard’, Kean actually proves the dreariest of dramatic dead-ends. Early baths all round, I fear.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Nothing but Sir Antony Sher's desire to portray the famous 19th-century actor and philanderer Edmund Kean can explain the decision to resuscitate Jean-Paul Sartre's grimly unamusing version of Alexandre Dumas' romantic melodrama. In Adrian Noble's misjudged production the play is confusingly staged both in the 1950s, when Sartre's adaptation was premiered, and in Kean's own time - though in either period most actors, Sher excepted, adopt a burlesque style of heightened insincerity and affectation. No comic or satirical points are scored by this device. Here, in unenergised and glum form, a dull voice either a throaty rasp or rising to mannered, high notes, Sher never conveys what a thrilling Shakespearean, seductive lover and exuberant character Kean must have been, or how different acting styles must have been then. It is an evening of unalloyed displeasure.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Antony Sher has never fought shy of being larger-than-life as a performer, so he's able to generate just the right sense of inordinate on-and-off stage appetite and reckless, verging-on-the-ridiculous bravura needed to play the version of the great 19th-century actor, Edmund Kean, that Sartre serves up in his 1953 play. Revived now in a breezily entertaining production by Adrian Noble, the piece comes across as an intriguing curiosity rather than a neglected masterpiece. The handling of the potentially ridiculous crescendo of coincidences and reunions in the final scene is quite masterly. At each turn, we see people struggling to adjust to bewildering new realities and the mood at the end is expertly mixed, allowing a sense that some things cannot be resolved to complicate the atmosphere of wonder and spiritual transcendence.”

    - by Malcolm Rock