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The Misanthrope

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The White Bear, Kennington

Ahead of the star-laden West End production of The Misanthrope, in which Keira Knightley will make her stage debut, you'd be wise to take in this revival (of Tony Harrison's fine verse translation) at Kennington's delightfully dingy White Bear.

Like Chekhov's Ivanov, so brilliantly revived in the Donmar West End season last year, Moliere's Misanthrope strikes me in many ways as a study of depression, and Harrison's translation certainly emphasises the darker elements, wisely resisting the temptation to go for cheap laughs.

The plot (which is thin) revolves around titular misanthrope Alceste, as he deals variously with a law-suit – not helped by his dismissal of the amateurish poetry of insecure but influential Oronte – and his knowingly foolish pursuit of flirty socialite Célimène. Less of a character than a mouthpiece, Alceste expresses many of the censored Moliere's views of the society and literature of his day, the latter of which seem painfully relevant today considering the plethora of celebrity books infecting the bestseller lists.

When Alceste ends up “betrayed on all sides”, primarily by Célimène's deceit (most painful of all her description of him in private correspondence as “the world's worst bore”), it endorses his pessimism but wounds him nonetheless. In a final, tortuous moment of realisation, he slumps away, whether to suicide or self-inflicted exile, we're not entirely sure. In the end, it's his obsessive desire for honesty that proves his undoing, which must surely rank as one of the most sombre thematic conclusions in all drama.

Simon Evans' production sets the action in a high-rise apartment situated in an anonymous metropolis. It's an effective choice, pitching Alceste as a flavour-of-the-month author, and those around him as an entourage. Arsinoé in particular (played by the arachnidian Valerie Cutko) resembles someone more recognisable from Sex and the City than French farce.

The evening undoubtedly belongs to David Brown, who delivers a powerhouse performance in the title role. He spits out Harrison's verse with fine rhythm and variation, imbuing Alceste with an Othello-like combination of jealousy and pity. And he's ably supported by Juliet Crawford as Célimène, who possesses the right cocktail of faux naivety and dubious feline charm.

For all its strengths however, Evans' production is let down by some clumsily choreographed group scenes and a tendency to undermine the subtleties of Harrison's translation - a prime example being the ludicrously distracting white kilt adorning James McNicholas' Clitandre (suffice to say it left me thanking god he wore underpants). But Brown's performance pastes over enough cracks to make this a highly recommended alternative (or should I say complement) to Thea Sharrock 's forthcoming galácticos staging.


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