When I saw Laurence Olivier play Othello, his epileptic fit was so real, and so terrifying, that I had to rush from my two shilling standing place at the back of the Old Vic stalls and vomit in the restroom. No other actor in my experience has summoned this fury at the outer limit of emotion, or the ability to convey it, but Edmund Kean, by all accounts, was a worthy precursor in the early 19th century.
To see him act, said Coleridge, was to read Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. And the programme at the Apollo quotes Fanny Burney: “If he was irregular and unartistlike in his performance, so is Niagara compared with the waterworks of Versailles.”
Something unusual, tumultuous and “modern” was going on. In the biographical play Kean, Antony Sher, in a performance of dedicated oddness, crude vanity and sweatiness, suggests that acting ancestor was a social outcast with his roots in the vaudeville of the day – he is performing the last act of Othello as a charity for the much-loved, impecunious tumblers of his youth - who blurred the edges of his stage and social personalities with booze and sexual rapacity.
Jean-Paul Sartre is the unlikely author of this meta-theatrical 1953 backstage farce, bludgeoned into adapting Dumas pere’s 1836 pot-boiler by an actor whom Sartre wanted for a more serious piece. Adrian Noble’s skilful production uses Frank Hauser’s prickly-sharp translation, first despatched with scornful, puffed up bravura by the late, great Alan Badel in 1971. Derek Jacobi followed in more gracious, matinee idol mode in a Sam Mendes production in 1990.
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.
Jacobi – who was Cassio to Olivier’s Othello - evoked the great man’s voice, glistening make-up, reddened inner mouth, splayed hands and leonine amble in the charity show; Sher is not so bold, settling for comic tableaux and – in his best, and most remarkable, sequence – a complete on-stage breakdown: “There’s no one here I don’t really know… the rest is silence.”
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.