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Review Round-up: Did Critics 'Burn' Keira Alive?

Did Keira Knightley’s prediction about being “burned alive” by critics come true (See The Goss, 17 Dec 2009)? Judging by the bulk of this morning’s newspapers, Knightley, who made her stage debut last night (17 December 2009, previews from 5 December) in The Misanthrope at the West End’s Comedy Theatre, won’t need to rise from the ashes anytime soon. The screen star can indeed “cut it” on stage, in the opinion of most overnight critics.

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.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “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 … is a perfect role for her … She is driving Damian Lewis’ splendidly angry playwright Alceste to distraction … Crimp preserves the five act shape, and his rhyming doggerel ‘feels’ like Moliere … Crimp was certainly prophetic in narrowing the play down to a showbiz satire … 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.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “A play about the perils of celebrity and falsity of the media seems the perfect platform for Keira Knightley’s West End debut, and the star of Pride and Prejudice and Pirates of the Caribbean radiates knowingness and elegance as — of all things — a cosseted American actress. Molière’s verse comedy, in five short acts, was first performed in the same year as the Great Fire of London. Here it’s radically updated, in Martin Crimp’s version (first seen in 1996, and now revamped) that’s larded with satire … At the heart of these is Damian Lewis’ Alceste. He is traditionally a character with nobility and grandeur, but here he is spiky and profane ... Lewis is physical, angry and deliberately a little ridiculous … No character in the play is likeable, but Jennifer is arguably its most toxic presence. Keira Knightley brings a glossy self-possession to the part. She doesn’t project sufficiently, but overall convinces as a smart young woman cocooned in what Alceste dubs ‘an ante-room to hell’. Crimp’s rhyming version is sometimes very sharp, poking fun at plenty of juicy targets. Yet the language doesn’t make for fluency. In places it clunks … The characters have insufficient chemistry; there’s a lack of dynamism and spark.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Can Keira Knightley cut it? … Knightley brings to the role fine, sculpted features, palpable intelligence and a nice mix of faux-innocence and flirtiness. Even if she doesn't always know what to do with her hands, she gives a perfectly creditable performance. My main doubt concerns the continuing validity of Crimp's modern-dress Molière … for all its topical zest, (it’s) a shadow of the original … Fortunately, in Thea Sharrock's production, it is cast from strength. Damian Lewis has the right mix of righteous anger and comic absurdity as Alceste … Knightley's Jennifer is also no mere airhead. Floating around in a silky black jumpsuit, she looks terrific. But, more to the point, she shows that Jennifer's withering attacks on superbrat actors, greedy agents and power-mad drama coaches are simply a bitchier version of Alceste's own truth-game ... There is also a delicious cameo from Tim McMullan as a drama critic named Covington – can't think where Crimp got the name from – who has aspirations to be a playwright … McMullan offers a wickedly funny caricature of us hacks at our worst. It all makes for a pleasantly jokey evening. It's only when you relate Crimp's version to the tragi-comic world of Molière's original masterpiece that it falls seriously short.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “(Knightley) catches the waywardness, occasionally the steel behind the velvety manner, the narcissistic love of attention, but not the authority to explain how she can dominate a gathering by more than beauty. Partly the reason is physical. She’s so wispy she could fit into an umbrella stand. Partly it’s a want of vox, partly a lack of the assurance that more time on stage may bring her ... In his avidity to update, Crimp sometimes diminishes Molière ... I wouldn’t say that Crimp succumbs to the knowing insularity that he and Alceste condemn; but the stakes are never as high as in Molière. Yet Alceste himself does seem the ambiguous figure he should be. He’s paranoid, self-righteous but also correct about a Britain in danger of sinking giggling into the sea, taking Knightley’s pretty Hollywood star with it. Neither moved me. I didn’t care too much about either’s fate. But they did keep me engrossed for two hours.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “At the end of this fine revival of Martin Crimp’s witty update of Moliere’s great comedy I wanted to rush round to the stage door and seek an immediate audience with its star, Keira Knightley. Partly to offer my congratulations, for after a hesitant start in her eagerly awaited stage debut she gets better and better in the admittedly not especially stretching role of an American film star, but more importantly to press some food on her. She is undoubtedly beautiful and the camera loves her, but in the flesh she seems almost scarily skinny … The move from Moliere’s court of Louis XIV to the bitchy world of actors and journalists today works well, and Crimp’s rhyming couplets, though not always elegant, pack a real punch …. In the early scenes Knightley seems a touch tentative, lacking in both energy and presence. In the second half, however … she reveals both power and poignancy. She also makes you realise why Damian Lewis’ splendid Alceste is so obsessed … There is a mystery to Knightley’s allure, and an endearing streak of mischief … Lewis delivers his rants with precision and wit, but also suggests a genuinely pitiable character getting ever closer to the end of his rope, his misanthropy in part a mask for his own corrosive sense of fear and failure. Thea Sharrock’s production … bubbles with malicious wit, and there is especially fine support from Tim McMullan as the vain, vile critic, Tara Fitzgerald as a bitchy acting coach, and Nicholas Le Prevost as a self-satisfied agent. This stinging, zinging play would be a hit without Knightley. With her, it becomes unmissable.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “In Thea Sharrock's excellent, platinum-cast revival of this 1996 contemporary update by Martin Crimp of Molière's great satire ... the misanthropic Alceste is transformed into a terminally disgruntled playwright played by a brilliantly tetchy and (to just the right degree) faintly ridiculous Damian Lewis ... The production was in danger of breaking the play's own implied moral code by casting Keira Knightley ... The critical knives were unsheathed and quivering. So it's a tonic to report that Knightley finesses all this ethical fussing by turning in a performance that is not only strikingly convincing but, at times, rather thrilling in its satiric aplomb. A poster-girl for natural thinness, she makes Olive Oyl look chunkier than Roseanne Barr. It's not just that she cuts a stunningly beautiful figure here; it's that she has real stage presence and knows how to use it ... In the hallucinatory Molière-period costume orgy at the end, Knightley rises from the ashes of her wrecked name not so much like a phoenix as like an incorrigibly shameless languorous lizard who can suborn anyone with her manipulative sexiness ... In a uniformly excellent cast, Tim McMullan is hilariously funny as a theatre critic who is trying to promote the script of his abject play.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “Keira Knightley may be one of 21st-century cinema’s revered objects but on stage she proves little better than adequate. Her arrival on the West End in an interesting (but intellectually disingenuous) treatment of Moliere’s Le Misanthrope is, well, on the dull side. She has all the charisma of a serviceable goldfish. Miss Knightley has a flawless face but it does not move about much. In a film actress this is often an advantage but on stage it is a snag. It’s like giving a carpenter a blunt chisel. On film you can sit like a cat and allow the director to do much of the mood work. The occasional word here and there, a longing glance to camera, and, hey presto, you’re an international celeb. On stage you have to project, not just the voice (here a tuneless American accent) but also the whole being, physically, emotionally ... The character as portrayed by Knightley is little beyond an elegant mannequin ... Would Alceste, so enraged by modern art and politics, really give such a dull dolly more than a glance? ... It does not help Knightley that she is up with an accomplished cast including Damian Lewis, Dominic Rowan, Nicholas Le Prevost and Tim McMullan (who with his one bad eye and his back-of-larynx voice is a comic maestro). Tara Fitzgerald is also on the premises, playing the ex-best friend of Knightley’s Jennifer. Ah, Fitzgerald. Now there is a proper stage actress ... Casting the underpowered Knightley in this anti-fashion play is merely indicative of his lack of self-knowledge.”
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