Review – Kean starring Antony Sher, Apollo Theatre, London

Sunday 3 June 2007

Phil was having one of his Greta Garbo evenings. These involve hiding himself away in his flat in his biggest sunglasses and his most glamorous snood playing the role of recluse for an evening and refusing to answer the telephone.

Well, by “evening” one means an hour or so because no-one ever calls to try to coax him out from his shell and, sadly, without attention “Phil” as you understand the concept doesn’t actually exist. He only exists when reflected in the attention of others.

It’s all very Satrian so it was a shame that he had chosen this particular night to wrestle with his tenuous sense of self-identity as he missed the revival of Jean Paul Sartre‘s Kean at the Apollo.

It was left to Andrew to draft would-be whinger M/N in to share the burden of witnessing one of France’s greatest philosophers trying to make a coherent play out of the life of Edmund Kean, the famous Regency actor whose performances Coleridge famously described as “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”, a double-edged compliment if ever there was one.

One of the problems with Sartre’s play (and not compensated for either by Sir Antony Sher‘s performance or Adrian Noble‘s direction) is that one never really gets the sense of Kean’s greatness – in spite of the fact that we are told about it innumerable times.

Presumably it’s precisely because Regency styles of acting would be so alien to modern audiences that it can’t be shown. Noble’s solution is to transpose the action to 1950s England which served only to confuse Andrew even more as he couldn’t work out who the “Prince of Wales” was supposed to be or, indeed, why anyone cared about the relationship between Britain and Denmark. Possibly it was something to do with bacon, but Andrew’s knowledge of post-war European agrarian politics wasn’t up to the mark on this occasion.

Anyway, to be fair, the new setting is occasionally successful: an early key scene set at a diplomatic cocktail party works well as a way of bouncing Satre’s mini-philosophical ideas around under the guise of party chit chat. so too did the stage-and-audience action (anachronistic limelight aside). And the scene changes were nice and zippy too (take note, Mr Hytner).

But embarrassingly, there is quite a lot of fourth-wall business where the actors -rather redundantly, Andrew felt – look out at the audience to remind them that this is artifice.

No need to remind us, Mr Noble. If there were any lingering suspension of disbelief it was blown apart at the end of the first act when – despite the clapping of a lone technician – the audience failed to applaud until the actors had shuffled off and the house lights came on. A curtain might have been handy. And contextually relevant too.

The main problem is that Sartre’s play in much less than the sum of its parts – there is so much promising material to be had from the idea of the role of the actor in the context of Sartre’s philosophical preoccupations, but no matter how many references to reality, truth, self/selfishness, child/man, actor/priest, the taking of roles and game-playing Sartre tosses in, one struggles to come up with a response much more enthusiastic than “so what?”

Sir Antony Sher’s performance is adequate; probably better than that given the lack of material. Or maybe not. Does anyone else think he’s gone a bit off the boil since his knighthood? His Number One fan certainly seems to have lost interest judging by the fact that the latest news on his fansite dates from 2003.

His dresser is played by Sam Kelly who was the only good thing in the Barbican panto last Christmas. Cunningly he plays safe and reprises his role here with some great panto banter.

Joanne Pearce has great presence as Kean’s love but the low register of her voice puts one in mind of Margaret Thatcher which is a bit alarming.

Admitting that his passion is a trumped-up game, Kean says at one point “A real passion must be wonderful” and it’s a shame that Sartre failed to find any in the wealth of material at his disposal.

What else? Well, here are the rest of Andrew’s notes:

  • Sartre’s Kean was revived as a musical in 1961 on Broadway. Won’t somebody please revive that for one night?
  • The frocks and wigs are very good indeed.
  • Sher as Kean as Othello looked more like Borat.

PS: Apparently, according to the blurb:

This cross-century collaboration is an unmissable portrait, redolent with greasepaint and overflowing with the life of the theatre. Sartre’s play is a passionate, sexy, funny, full-bloodied experience for anyone who loves Shakespeare, the theatre and great adventure.

so Andrew must have missed something. Again.

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