In Martin Crimp’s modern-day, London-set version of Moliere’s 17th-century comedy classic, the 24-year-old Knightley is helped by being cast in the almost made-to-order role of 22-year-old Jennifer, a super-successful American film star caught up in the celebrity machine and surrounded by slavishly devoted hangers-on, including a wheeler-dealer agent, a superbrat actor, a self-important critic and a dirt-digging tabloid journalist. The misanthrope of the title is Alceste, a famous British playwright disillusioned and angry with the hypocrisy, shallowness and vanity of the contemporary world, played by Damian Lewis.
The Misanthrope is directed by Thea Sharrock and designed by Hildegard Bechtler. Knightley and Lewis are joined by a top-notch ensemble including Tara Fitzgerald, Tim McMullan, Nicholas Le Prevost, Chuk Iwuji and Kelly Price. The production continues its limited season until 13 March 2010.
Though “the production was in danger of breaking the play's own implied moral code by casting Keira Knightley”, most critics seemed happy to report that the screen star done pretty good in a “perfect role for her”, delivering a performance that was described as “strikingly convincing”, “thrilling” and “perfectly creditable”. That said, Knightley’s lack of projection and awkward hand gestures betrayed her stage inexperience and, for the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, she “proves little better than adequate” as a theatre actor. Many also expressed concern about her “scarily skinny” physique, with one critic wanting to rush round to stage door to feed her.
Elsewhere, there was ample praise for the “brilliantly tetchy” Damian Lewis in the title role, the “wickedly funny” Tim McMullan as a theatre critic “mischievously” named Covington – see Michael Coveney's blog today for more comment on how this character reflects real life - and the rest of the “uniformly excellent” cast, but disagreement about just how well Martin Crimp’s version of Moliere works, with the majority finding it a shadow of the original. Nevertheless, an “engrossing” evening’s entertainment.