The Misanthrope

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“People would like a turd if they paid £50 and dressed up to go and see it.”

Adapting old plays requires some talent but re-writing them even more particular skill. Martin Crimp, whose name is hardly the most noted on the billboards of this latest interpretation of Monsieur de Moliere’s Misanthrope, deserves a good deal of the credit.

The verse is lilting and easy, not without rhythm but conversational. The play is also strikingly funny, if not a little vicious. There are digs at celebrity, compassionate Conservatism and even the audience – all very brave, if a little smug. Indeed, the main protagonist – a playwright called Alceste – is likeable in a smug sort of way. Think a more passionate Bernard Black from Black Books and you have an idea.

Alceste has an aversion to hypocrisy, but his refusal to play the rules of the game looks positively irrational, hence the title. His girlfriend, by contrast, is everybody’s girlfriend. For the purposes of her career, Jennifer has no qualms about flattering a critic on his script-writing ability.

This makes for a tense relationship, albeit one which is overly cathartic for the play’s purposes. Much though Damien Lewis and Keira Knightley – whose American accent is largely unfaultable – bring their characters to life, they struggle to make them likeable when there is so little chance of redemption.

But the play will, I’m sure, be well thought-of. Crimp has dragged the story out of the baroque into the post-modern, ruleless society, if indeed there is any difference. The court is replicated as the Hollywood circus, complete with former teachers, agents, critics and journalists – all ultimately out for themselves and quick to cash in their stock in Jennifer. Jennifer herself is strikingly young for so much fame, trying not to be a commodity, while throughout the play Knightley is decked out in Chanel (coincidence?).

The audience, very many of whom were there to see a real film star, may very well have been struck by the irony of it all, but then again, we’re getting used to the party continuing in spite of a crash. just maybe this old play will show us a watershed after the past year’s revulsion. If we’re not careful, we’ll all be misanthropes soon.

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