Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Misanthrope

Having kissed and made up, The Philosopher and I went to see the new production of Martin Crimp's The Misanthrope on Monday eve. I should be up front and say that Crimp's popularity is a complete mystery to me. His much lauded The City (on earlier this year at the Royal Court) was possibly the worst play I've ever seen. I mean walk out bad and I NEVER walk out of the theatre. I tried to forget that Molière's play had been translated by Crimp and just sit back and enjoy the show. But, yep, you guessed it: I just couldn't do it.

It should also be said, in case you're as yet unaware, that this production marks the stage debut of none other than Keira Knightley and also stars Damian Lewis. I gather Damian Lewis is rather famous for being someone or other in Band of Brothers, but I've only ever seen him reading Auden at the Josephine Hart poetry event, of which I am a regular attendee. Thankfully, for me at least, I'm rather a fan of Keira Knightley so at least I didn't start off on the wrong foot with her at least.

So why didn't I like the play. There were solid performances from everyone, a nice tightly knit ensemble cast, and considering we saw the show on it's opening night, that's no small feat. And while the translation wasn't an abomination, it wasn't great either. First of all, French 17th-century verse poetry does not translate very well into English so why bother, especially when a director is going to let the actors run all over the rhyming couplets anyway. Secondly, there's too much wink-wink-nod-nod meta-theatricality stuffed into the play for one to get a sense of anything other than how damn clever Mr Crimp appears to think he is. Plus he takes a swipe at Stoppard, which in my mind, is completely unsupportable especially as Stoppard is twice the playwright Crimp will EVER be. Ugh. Annoying. So maybe the blame here really lies with Molière. The Misanthrope just isn't that great of a play - or maybe it was in the 17th century when it was truly provocative and satirical - but it isn't now. Sure it has the minor moral point to make that the middle ground is the ideal place to inhabit when it comes to frankness versus insincerity but Alceste, the pseudo-hero, is tedious and Jennifer (i.e. love interest Celimene) is vain and ridiculous.

Like the whole beauty in art thing which seems to have kicked off anew recently, the application of the concept of truth in real life is far more complicated than Alceste and Jennifer and Crimp and Molière would have us believe. I can't think of anyone who practices a kind of absolute truth in their dealings in everyday life and most of us know that a white lie here or there can go a long way to lubricate social situations. In revivals of older theatrical productions, the first question everyone asks is whether the themes still strike a chord: I don't think in this case they do. There are plenty of other plays which expose the hypocrisy of human behaviour far more powerfully and beautifully than Molière's ridiculous play (there, I said it) and Crimp's reliance on self-indulgent meta-theatrical references is not enough to make this play anything other than a fairly enjoyable way to pass a few hours.

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