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The Misanthrope

Published 18 December 2009

Hildegard Bechtler’s faux-Versailles hotel suite is an apt setting for Martin Crimp’s updated version of Molière’s 17th century comedy.

This is the temporary residence of Jennifer (Keira Knightley), an American film star visiting London to promote her latest raunchy film. Surrounded by fakery and sporting an array of hangers-on, Jennifer revels in the attention they give her while happily bitching about them to the journalist who comes to interview her.

Quite why she has attracted a boyfriend such as Alceste (Damian Lewis), then, is hard to fathom. This brooding playwright – the misanthrope of the title – detests superficiality and rails against the shallowness that he thinks has infected society. Yet in falling for Jennifer, who embodies everything he hates but has the virtue of being beautiful, he seems the ultimate hypocrite.

Will Alceste be able to extract Jennifer from her glossy surroundings and reveal the belle beneath the bitch, or will he – as his friend John (Dominic Rowan) has done – succumb to the superficiality around him?

Crimp’s version is spoken in modern verse and his rhyming couplets take some getting used to, yet the cast copes with them competently. Molière’s words have been abruptly updated and there are many ultra-contemporary references, including a jibe at Lloyd Webber. A play that is already loaded with irony was practically bursting at the seams at last night’s press night, referencing, as it does, the relationship between critics, actors, journalists and playwrights. The aptly-named Covington is an unflattering caricature of a critic-turned-playwright, journalist Ellen is out for all she can get and Jennifer’s comment that “the media’s fascination with me isn’t my fault” has an added layer of knowingness given the mouth from which it is spoken.

There are some incongruities to the characters though; why the seemingly shrewd Jennifer would be so naive as to spill the beans to a journalist is unclear. And Tara Fitzgerald’s feminist drama teacher Marcia seems all too eager to latch onto Jennifer’s circle after heartily denouncing it.

Thea Sharrock’s production frequently doffs its feathered cap to the source material; knowing jokes within Crimp’s text reference Molière, while Bechtler’s set need not change as the hotel room becomes the court of Louis XIV for Jennifer’s costume party. The final scene, with all accept Alceste dressed in 17th century wigs and gowns, shows all too blatantly the similarity between one society of excess and another. 

CB

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