I should get out of the way first that I am a bit of a Knightley partisan. I think she has proven herself more than worthy since the first Pirates film, but it was Pride and Prejudice where she completely won me over. I maintain that she is the only actress I have seen who managed to struck the right balance between Elizabeth Bennett's passion, intelligence and generosity, while also portraying her vanity and self-righteousness. Her performance in Atonement is completely different - very particular, stylised and subtle but equally wonderful.
Yet despite my admiration for her work, Knightley seems to inspire some quite toxic levels of disgust among people and I don't know of another performer whose weight is used so consistently to denigrate their work. Even in The Independent's review of The Misanthrope, the writer (a woman) felt the need to comment on how Knightley looked. No male actor would ever have to put up with that kind of bullshit.
So that's how I entered the theatre last night. I hadn't read any reviews (the press night was on Thursday night), but I wanted her to succeed. I knew nothing about the original Moliere play, except that this was a version originally done in 1996 and updated once again for this staging. You can read a distillation of the plot here. The milieu has been changed to one of fashionable playwrights, vain critics and superficial Hollywood starlets in London circa 2009, but the themes and conflicts are the same.
This was a great, chunky night out at the theatre. Damien Lewis plays Alscest and I think its safe to say its a good performance only because I didn't want to punch him. You see, Lewis is playing one of my least favourite archetypes - the guy who is supposed to be 'honest' because he thinks everything is shit. I get it, the play is called The Misanthrope. Therefore misanthropy is a major theme. But the play comes perilously close to being a dirge within the opening 20 minutes, where a false dichotomy of miserable truthfulness against superficial politeness is set-up. Alcest's girlfriend, a young, vain yet intelligent actress called Jennifer (Knightley) is the woman he is trying to save from the superficial celeb-obsessed world that she lives in. Lewis is very good at making Alcest charismatic enough to make you believe in Jennifer's attraction to him, but also ridiculous enough to undercut some of the didactic nature of the play. My major problem with his work is that I don't think Alcest worked consistently on an emotional level - he seemed to veer too wildly between different poles without much reason.
There came a point, at least for me, when he becomes just as superficial as everybody around him. He is as fundamentally dishonest and emotionally cowed as everybody else, and far more deluded about how the world works than the people he rails against. In my trusty Penguin Classics description of the play, they claim that The Misanthrope is the 'portrait of a man doomed to social wilderness because he cannot concede to convention nor compromise his principles'. I'm not sure I buy that to be honest - to me, there is nothing very principled about Alcest's jealous possessiveness and self-delusion. There is nothing very principled about his refusal to see Jennifer as anything but his to rule and control. It seems to me like Alcest dooms himself because he hold his principles to be worth something more than the flesh and blood of those around him. I guess you could argue that there is a type of tragic heroism in that, but I think it is a particularly low-rent kind.
Knightley plays Jennifer, the young American actress who is both the centre of the conflict and the prize (sexual, emotional, financial and intellectual) that all the other characters are striving to win. I think not only is Jenny's character the best realised and the most compelling of the whole play, but Knightley nails her beautifully. I have heard a lot of people joke that it wouldn't have been much of a stretch for a beautiful young actress to play a beautiful young actress, but Knightley is asked to play a huge range of emotions in this piece, as well as contend with the tricky, verse dialogue. What I liked about Jenny is that she is the one who seems to maintain the most control of her various relationships by being the most realistic about her place in the world. She can be cruel and selfish, vain and superficial, but she is emotionally open and honest with Alcest in a way that he cannot be with her. She demolishes Alcest's ridiculous suburban fantasies and rightly recognises them as just another way for Alcest to allay his raging jealousy and fully posses her. Knightley embodies Jennifer's contradictions with skill and subtlety. She isn't perfect in the role - there are technical parts of the performance that she still seems to be refining (eg she sometimes seems slightly lost in the crowd scenes on stage) and she rather over-eggs Jennifer's superficial bitchiness in her first interview scene. But overall, she and Lewis make a formidable duo.
Its difficult to discuss the other characters and actors - all play rather one dimensional archetypes, though they do so with great skill. Tara Fitzgerald should get a mention for being so deliciously bitchy and two-faced in the role of Jennifer's acting teacher. At first, I thought she was a bit too camp, but she does have a brilliant scene with Knightley where teacher and student slowly twist the knife into one another which is both superbly acted and probably the best piece of sustained dialogue in the show. Fitzgerald deftly shows you the cracks in Marcia's veneer and relishes the emotional brutality of her final monologue to Jennifer. Its a wonderful piece of comic acting.
I can't speak for the skill of the adaptation. It takes a while to get used to the verse, and it doesn't help that it sometimes sounds really clunky in its attempts to rhyme. I did laugh a lot, and the actors, for the most part, did really well with making it feel real. Lewis and Fitzgerald were especially skilled at this, but I think Knightley showed her inexperience by occasionally have difficulty with some of the rhythms. The play had plenty of contemporary resonance, and it held my interest throughout. In the more emotional scenes (the Fitzgerald/Knightley stand-off, and Knightley/Lewis' major fight) it managed to break through the stylised dialogue and became genuinely emotionally gripping.
I do think the play runs out of steam at the end. I don't think it resolves itself in any kind of interesting way - essentially the character's restate their various philosophical positions, Alcest spits the dummy and the curtain falls. I get that not everything is resolved in real life, but there also doesn't seem to be much of a dramatic arc in the piece. You could argue I guess, that Alcest has his delusions shattered and his misanthropy confirmed. But I instinctively recoil from that sort of easy moralising and I think that's why the play feels ultimately unsatisfying.
At several points in the play, the characters also break the fourth wall, commenting on the nature of the updated play that they are in, and making a few, condescending, audience-winking jokes. This is actually a bit of a pet hate of mine. I don't think a writer should break the fourth wall unless there is a stylistic or narrative reason behind it. You always risk shattering the ability for an audience to suspend their disbelief. This becomes even more important to consider in a piece which already has elements which can distance an audience from the emotional realities of the characters (in this case, the stylised dialogue and the meta-casting of Knightley). To me, the moments that break that wall in The Misanthrope are cheap gags, none of which are even particularly funny.
Having said that, I really did enjoy the play - it was challenging, had some wonderful dialogue and great acting from a spirited ensemble. I would love to see an original production of the play to see if the elements I didn't like were part of the update or are intrinsic to the piece. But overall, a perfect way to end the year in theatre.