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Kean

Published 17 April 2008

Edmund Kean, described by many as one of Britain’s greatest Shakespearean actors, was, by the time he died aged 42 in 1833, as famous for his private life as he was for his performance abilities. A heavy drinker and womaniser, Kean the man destroyed the reputation of Kean the actor through an affair with the wife of a public figure. This revival of Sartre’s 1953 farce, based on Dumas’s dramatic original, depicts Kean as a troubled figure unable to separate himself from the characters he plays. Caroline Bishop went to the first night…

Appropriately then, we never really figure out who Kean is from Sher’s portrayal of him, other than a sad, eccentric figure who doesn’t really know himself. As the play opens, Kean is on stage at Drury Lane performing Richard III and, we hear, people are clamouring outside the theatre to get in, such is his appeal. Kean as actor is much respected by the upper-class social circle of aristocracy – including the Prince of Wales (Alex Avery) – and ambassadors who come to see him perform, and his stage persona entrances many a lady. But, when he appears at a private party of that same group, it is clear that Kean the man, of humble origins, is looked down upon and faintly ridiculed.

Marred by drink and with the threat of bankruptcy hanging over him, Kean’s sense of reality is confused by his public image and one becomes entwined with the other; he speaks alternatively in a cockney drawl, RP and a drink-fuelled tirade, inserting the lines from his famous roles – Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III – into his speech. The most he is ever himself – whatever that may be – is backstage with his dresser and friend Salomon (Sam Kelly). Clad in a red dressing gown, knocking back the drink, sweaty, it is hard to see the appeal that has women flocking at his feet, such as the impassioned wife of the Danish Ambassador, Elena, the Countess of Koefeld (Joanne Pearce).

The play becomes as confusing as Kean’s mind surrounding his relations with both Elena – to whom a seemingly desperate Kean proclaims his love – and Anne Danby (Jane Murphy), the precocious young actress who clings onto the actor like a limpet and pesters him to become both his co-star and his wife. A petulant and disturbed Kean becomes entangled with both until he unravels on stage, his personal life finally destroying his professional.

Like the parts Kean plays, Director Adrian Noble has the characters acting more and more melodramatically until it is unclear exactly what any of them really wants – except for the forthright Danby. As for Kean, he is “an actor who wants to be loved like a Lord”, but tragically, Kean the actor is always loved more than Kean the distinctly un-lordly man.

CB

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