Could Keira cut it? She could, and she can, though one comes away from Thea Sharrock’s revival of Martin Crimp’s 1996 Moliere update admiring the girl’s wittiness in playing a stick thin Hollywood starlet trapped in a career cul-de-sac more than dying to see her again in Congreve or David Hare. The readiness, if not the reediness, is all.
Keira Knightley is just 24, although it seems she’s been around for decades. And Crimp’s Jennifer in the hotel hothouse that is the equivalent of Celimene’s saloon is a perfect role for her. She even makes the bitchiness sound natural, though you do fear for her physical well-being: if she turned round in a shower, she probably wouldn’t get wet.
She is driving Damian Lewis’ splendidly angry playwright Alceste to distraction, though it’s oddly hard to detect any sexual obsession in his infatuation. Lewis lays about him with a bracing bile and candour only to find himself caught up in the very deceit he abhors. He’s in the wrong business if he thinks truth-telling is going to make any difference.
Crimp preserves the five act shape, and his rhyming doggerel “feels” like Moliere even though the actual translation isn’t a patch on Tony Harrison’s for the National – with Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg sparring, unforgettably – or Richard Wilbur’s. And Hildegard Bechtler’s monumental drawing room of swags and gilded furniture, beautifully lit by Peter Mumford, has the right broken down classical atmosphere.
Crimp was certainly prophetic in narrowing the play down to a showbiz satire. His creepy critic Covington, played with hilarious boom and smarminess by Tim McMullan, has buttoned up his barathea blazer over a pair of torn, blanched jeans while fingering the dread play in his briefcase; unlike Oronte’s poem in Moliere, though, the play when it comes, while obviously inept, is not really dreadful or funny enough.
In Crimp, one playwright’s crossed the feel good factor with the Holocaust, and Jennifer sees her role as providing what the media need, while Alceste name-checks Barthes and Derrida as well as Lloyd Webber and Stoppard. The references are sometimes strained beyond the perimeters of character, but Knightley sails serenely through, pretty as ever, her limited technique no bar to total comprehension of where she’s coming from.