The Misanthrope, Comedy Theatre, London

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Monday 21 December 2009 01:00

Thea Sharrock's revival of this 1996 contemporary update by Martin Crimp of Molière's great satire against both the amoral courtly rumour-mill and courtly malpractice is an excellent, platinum-cast treat.

Played by a brilliantly tetchy and (to just the right degree) faintly ridiculous Damian Lewis, 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 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. 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.

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. She is 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, brilliantly nailed by Tara Fitzgerald. And in the hallucinatory Molière-period costume orgy at the end, Knightley rises from the ashes of her wrecked name like an incorrigibly shameless, languorous lizard who can suborn anyone with her manipulative sexiness.

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.

Booking to 13 March (0844 579 1940)

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