Martin Crimp’s version of Molière’s The Misanthrope is a curious experiment. Not satisfied to update the text to contemporary style, he also updated the plot to the present day. As one could expect, all sorts of adjustments had to be made – Alceste becomes a playwright, Célimène becomes the American movie actress Jennifer, her friends Éliante and Arsinoé are shown as a journalist and a teacher of acting. Do not expect a word-by-word adaptation – many dialogues are simplified, others are extended, the spirit of some scenes is slightly altered and the closing scene gains an “explanation” that Molière preferred to leave to the audience’s imagination. I have to confess that this scene did seem artificial to me in its new guise. In Molière’s courtly atmosphere, the rather schematic denouement simply fits in its precious eloquence, while here these characters’ behavior seems a bit silly in its self-explanatory simplification.
That said, Crimp’s version is strangely faithful to Molière in the sense that Classical French theatre is essentially about THE TEXT. There is a narcissistic approach to the poetic writing and the wit, the charm and the subtlety belong rather the author’s elegant verses’ than any individual characters, regardless of how sharply defined they might be. In this sense, Martin Crimp never fails to seduce the audience with his virtuosic quality of his versification, the fluidity of his language and the imagination of his rhymes. Thus, although the content may be informal, the structure is rigorously formal. And that’s what make this version worth while the visit to the theatre. As an example, Molière’s “Morbleu! c’est une chose indigne, lâche, infame,/ de s’abaisser ainsi jusqu’à trahir son âme; et si, par un malheur, j’en avais fait autant,/ je m’irais, de regret, pendre tout à instant” becomes “If I was that compromised, Christ knows/I think I’d take a fucking overdose“.
The idea of showing these coquettes, poets and philosophers as movie/theatre people is also most fortunate, since the inspiration from the play comes from Molière’s personal life and his marital problems with actress Armande Béjart. In her staging at the Comedy Theatre, Thea Sharrock plays even further with the whole updating situation by having a masked ball in act V where all characters (but Alceste) dressed in XVIIIth century costumes. The same mirror game is made by the soundtrack. If Sharrock could not properly deal with the artificiality of Crimp’s closing scene, she ensured that the dialogues were delivered in the most natural way and, in some understated sort of way, recognized that the text is actually the main character of the play. Hildegard Bechler’s sets similarly show a hotel room with a classically inspired decoration.
The cast is dominated by Damian Lewis’s absolute tour de force as Alceste. He says his lines with crystalline clarity and yet with amazing energy and his stage presence is never less than magnetic. In a similar level, Tara Fitzgerald gives her Marcia/Arsinoé a strong voice and the sort of radiant personality that only true theatre actresses possess. On avoiding clownishness, Tim McMullan makes a brilliantly funny Covington/Oronte. The key role of Jennifer/Célimène is taken by Keira Knightley, whose extremely gracious figure works beautifully for the irresistible coquette Célimène. Although she acts with sincerity and engagement, hers is still a movie actress’s performance, especially in what regards declamation. She is sabotaged by an American accent with which she is curiously not entirely comfort (she has played American characters in a couple of films, but that seems to be less of a problem in that media).