Keira hits the stage

The actress joins a long line of movie stars trying their hand at theatre as she makes her West End debut next week. How will she fare?

A curious by-product of our celebrity-crazed culture is the assumption that every time a well-known face on film or television steps on a stage, he or she will make a complete pig's ear of the exercise.

It may well be the case that Keira Knightley, who makes her professional stage debut next week as an American film star celebrity in an updated version of Molière's French classic The Misanthrope, is aiming too high.

You could as easily say, as she's playing a sort-of hyperventilated version of herself, that she's aiming too low. But at 24 years old, she's certainly aiming somewhere, and that's surely admirable.

If she succeeds as the insufferable Jennifer in cutting-edge playwright Martin Crimp's translation, she will acquire no little kudos and the show-business press will applaud her acting chops. If she flops, there will be tears at midnight and the sort of clucking, vengeful "I told you so" backlash that always stems from the ridiculous idea that film acting is easy, a kind of con, and that proving yourself on the stage is what really matters.

The trouble with Knightley is that there is no general agreement about her talent in the first place. Her major film debut in Bend It Like Beckham was a total delight, while her television stab at Boris Pasternak's Lara in Doctor Zhivago was almost embarrassingly unwatchable.

Similarly, she's gorgeous and funny in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series (she's just signed to make the fourth) but looks awkward and blank, with a silly adolescent pout, in the two Joe Wright movies she's made, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (where Vanessa Redgrave in the last reel showed us what screen acting's all about).

So, can film stars act, anyway? There is a difference between casting celebrity and casting a screen star with stage credentials. Martine McCutcheon was actually outstandingly good as Eliza Doolittle in Cameron Mackintosh's stage production, with the National Theatre, of My Fair Lady (interestingly, he's just signed Knightley for the new film version), but for one reason or another she couldn't sustain the role over many weeks.

Acting on stage takes stamina and discipline, as well as experience. Jude Law has just completed a sell-out season on Broadway in Hamlet, following the London run, no problem. But Law had stage history. A graduate of the National Youth Music Theatre, he's done pre-Hamlet time on the boards at the National and the Young Vic in major roles.

Snobs – and Jonathan Miller, surprisingly – denounced David Tennant playing Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, unmindful that television's Doctor Who had been an outstanding Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost over a couple of busy seasons with the RSC and an incandescent Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger in Edinburgh.

And Anna Friel, currently playing Holly Golightly (not very well, as it happens) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, may be best known for a lesbian kiss in Brookside or for hanging out on red carpets and inside West End clubs, but she's served serious time as a brilliant Lulu on stage at the Almeida Theatre in Islington and is clearly no chump in the footlights.

There have been examples of film stars fouling up on the West End stage. But they were invariably senior stars with an eye on the respectability stakes, such as Charlton Heston as a catastrophically dull Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons – he wore three different wigs on top of each other; execution in the Tower must have been a great weight off his mind – or Richard Dreyfuss stuttering painfully through Complicit at the Old Vic earlier this year. And Elizabeth Taylor was likened to a sedate cottage loaf when she appeared in Little Foxes many moons ago.

Usually, though there are no general rules about this, the younger film stars are doing the stage work because they want to prove themselves, not soak up respect, so there's at least a positive dynamic to the process. American playwright Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth proved a template back in 2002 when a succession of Hollywood young stars found huge popular and critical West End success: Hayden Christensen and Jake Gyllenhaal followed by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, Anna Paquin by Summer Phoenix. It helped that the play was really good, too.

Martin Crimp's Molière certainly gives Knightley a good platform to bite the hand that feeds her in the celebrity stakes. Molière's updated crowd of showbiz malingerers even includes a vain, posturing, badly dressed critic called Michael Covington with a nasty word for everyone including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Bennett and David Hare. (Surely some mistake here, amalgamating my chic, good-natured self with the smooth, sage theatre guru on The Guardian, Michael Billington... )

When first seen at the Young Vic in 1996, this media-savvy satire starred the low-profile American film actress Elizabeth McGovern, beset by gadflies in a cocoon of moral, bitchy neutrality. Knightley is surrounded with a stellar stage cast including Damian Lewis, Tara Fitzgerald, Dominic Rowan and Chuk Iwuji, the first black actor to play a Shakespearean king for the RSC. And she'll have absorbed years of advice and example from her parents, the excellent actor Will Knightley and the sensitive dramatist Sharman Macdonald.

Her director is Thea Sharrock, who guided Daniel Radcliffe through his very successful stage debut in London and New York last year as the boy who blinds horses in Peter Shaffer's Equus. And Knightley won't have to cope with the further distraction that bugged Radcliffe, that of appearing naked. Not for her, a cry of "I'm a celebrity, get me out of these togs".

One can only wish her well, for the moment at least. She really does start with a clean sheet as far as the critics are concerned, and the news from the previews is not entirely alarming. Still, when the going gets tough, and it will at some stage, Keira can always dash across Leicester Square in the new year to take comfort from another film star, 28-year-old Rupert Friend, making his stage debut at the Garrick Theatre in a play called The Little Dog Laughed; he's her current beau. So maybe they're both going "legitimate" as a seasonal jape and to catch the sales. Nice one.

'The Misanthrope' plays at the Comedy Theatre, London SW1 until 13 March 2010 (0844 579 1940)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all