I've not seen a lot of Molière plays in the past but when I have they've never had much trouble finding some relevance to modern life. Regardless, Martin Crimp's new version isn't so much a translation as a rewrite, with the action moved to the modern day, in the hotel suite of a visiting American actress, Jennifer. The fact that she's played by Keira Knightley has led both to performances selling out, and at the same time worries about whether she'd be good enough for the West End stage. As it happens, Knightley's fine (she doesn't have any major problems with the accent, and has a couple of the very few lines I laughed out loud at,) but there's not much else that's right with the production. Ironically, where people were unsure of Knightley they were confident that Damian Lewis would be a hit in the title role, but while his Alceste was never going to be likeable, I never felt any connection with him even as an anti-hero. The biggest problem for me though was the script; the verse is a bit awkward and the cast soon fall into a bit of a monotone reciting it (Tara FitzGerald's excellent Marcia gives some rare respite.)
But what alienated me right from the start was an air of what was meant to be self-referential irony but came across as utter smugness. I like Dominic Rowan and have already booked to see his Henry VIII this summer but that's not enough to make me ignore the fact that less than ten minutes in his character has a line about how what's going on seems more like a 17th-Century farce than modern-day events. We're still in the first act when the next "this is all a bit like a Molière play" comes along. Add a fancy dress ball with the theme of - oh my sides! - Louis XIV, and change Alceste's job to playwright so you can have some gags about the ticket prices and digs at David Hare and Tom Stoppard, and you're one step away from winking at the audience and going "Eh? Eh?" I'm not a total populist, I like plays that are clever. Less keen, though, on plays that spend two hours telling me how clever they are. And while I'm ranting: 4 quid for a programme with minimal content. Tsk.
Oh well. Keira Knightley used to shag Jamie Dornan, so that's excuse enough to put him in the avatar picture. There, that's better.
The Misanthrope by Molière in a version by Martin Crimp is booking until the 13th of March at the Comedy Theatre.