First Night: The Misanthrope, Comedy Theatre, London

4.00

Knightley casts aside critics in thrilling debut

There are many reasons for deploring the money-mad practice, beloved of certain producers, of promoting wholly inexperienced film stars to abrupt centre-stage status in order to make a fast, dishonest buck in the West End. One of the chief of these is that it can warp the very meaning of the play into which the newcomer is parachuted. Remember Up For Grabs? Given its English premiere in 2002, this was supposed to be a satire about the inflationary commercialism of the art market. But how could it continue to hold its head up high when the leading role was assigned to Madonna and when the Material Girl's presence led to the precisely the phenomenon that was being lambasted onstage, with tickets exchanging hands for a ludicrous £500 a throw.

You might have thought the same would be the case, with knobs on, in Thea Sharrock's excellent, platinum-cast revival of this 1996 contemporary update by Martin Crimp of Molière's great satire against both the amoral courtly rumour-mill and an extremist hatred of courtly malpractice.

Played by a brilliantly tetchy and (to just the right degree) faintly ridiculous Damian Lewis (think fashionable Etonian hunk rendered all the more dogmatic by a tiny worm of self-doubt), the misanthropic Alceste is transformed into a terminally disgruntled playwright in Crimp's adaptation. The world he hates is the sycophantic, nepotistic, nihilistic media village of sloppy, relativistic postmodernism. So if there's a practice he'd be almost bound to abhor it is that of casting film stars in plays such as his, and he'd dislike it all the more because the major flaw in his armour is that he has allowed himself to fall for a soulless sliver of bitchy Hollywood starlet called Jennifer.

Though the decision has certainly had the cash registers ringing their rocks off, the production was therefore in danger of breaking the play's own implied moral code by casting Keira Knightley, here treading the boards for the first time, in this latter role. The critical knives were unsheathed and quivering. So it's a tonic to report that Knightley finesses all this ethical fussing by turning in a performance that is not only strikingly convincing but, at times, rather thrilling in its satiric aplomb.

A poster-girl for natural thinness, she makes Olive Oyl look chunkier than Roseanne Barr. It's not just that she cuts a stunningly beautiful figure here; it's that she has real stage presence and knows how to use it.

Show this character a back and she will feel compelled to ruin a reputation behind it and, as a kind of more chilling variant of Alceste, she is first seen playing the virtuosic, I-diss-therefore-I-am cow to her toadying entourage. Knightley captures the driven irresponsibility of these friend-nuking flights with bravura brazenness.

She is also extremely fine in the scene where she turns the tables on her Lee Strasberg-like acting guru, Marcia, a parasitic vulture masquerading as a martyr-to-her-client. This female is brilliantly nailed by Tara Fitzgerald, who is clearly enjoying playing a resentful frump against her normal glamour-puss type.

And in the hallucinatory Molière-period costume orgy at the end, Knightley rises from the ashes of her wrecked name not so much like a phoenix as like an incorrigibly shameless languorous lizard who can suborn anyone with her manipulative sexiness. She extends a beautiful arm to one haplessly smitten victim in a gesture that is like de-creation's answer to the outstretched arm of God to Adam in Michelangelo.

In a uniformly excellent cast, Tim Mullen is hilariously funny as a theatre critic who is trying to promote the script of his abject play. This figure's throwback idea of trendiness (jeans and double-breasted blazer) and his woefully misguided celebrity-seeking-missile manner suggest that Mullen has been doing inspired research in a certain neck of the Sunday market.

Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week