The classical baton was passed down the generations last night (30 May 2007, previews from 24 May) as Antony Sher, one of the country’s leading living Shakespearean actors, returned to the West End to play legendary 19th-century thespian Edmund Kean, whose acting Coleridge famously described as “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”.

Sher plays the eponymous thespian in a new production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Kean, directed by former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Adrian Noble and running at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue for a limited season to 18 August following a regional tour (See News, 16 Feb 2007).

Sartre’s 1954 tragi-comedy, 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 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.

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For Whatsonstage.com TV, we were on hand at the Apollo Theatre on opening night. Amongst our TV interviewees are Kean cast members Antony Sher, Sam Kelly, Joanne Pearce, Alex Avery, producer Thelma Holt and other first night guests including Nichola McAuliffe.

South African-born Antony Sher is best known for his own classical performances, many of them for the RSC, 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.

- by Terri Paddock