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.
- by Malcolm Rock