Jean Paul Sartre, adapted from the play by Alexandra Dumas, translated by Frank Hauser
A Thelma Holt and Yvonne Arnaud Theatre production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

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The Kean of the title was one Edmund Kean. Born of humble origins in the late 18th Century he became a drunkard, a womaniser, a fantasist, but most importantly he became an actor – an actor of such originality and explosive style that he rivalled the great John Philip Kemble and there could not have been a greater contrast. Kemble was tall, aloof, patrician, and performed his Shakespearean characters with oratorical authority, whereas Kean’s style was described by Coleridge as “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightening”. His Shylock was a revelation when this short, swarthy figure exploded onstage wielding a butcher’s knife, and his Richard the Third became a legend, but it was his private life which intrigued. He never stopped acting a part, a part which constantly changed as he regularly re-invented himself, and Dumas and Sartre have put their own interpretation on the section of his life that we see here.

Viewed as if from backstage, Kean is in full flow with the final scene of Richard the Third and as the curtain descends the ‘audience’ responds with rapturous applause. Now the scene changes to a cocktail party and Kean is obviously welcomed in high society with even the Prince of Wales being a close friend and confidant. Here I became slightly bemused as, in this ‘cross-century’ production, the characters are in 1950’s style costume while still referring to Kean and Kemble as if they are contemporaries. Once this anomaly is accepted the play proceeds at a cracking pace with Mark Thompson’s exquisitely detailed sets – particularly of opulent dressing room and of public bar - constantly switching. I have to mention that these were constructed by Miraculous Engineering as their swift sliding, gliding and clicking precisely yet unobtrusively into place is very impressive.

Playing an actor who is always acting takes an exceptional performer to cope with the constant changes of persona, and you could not have a more exceptional actor than Antony Sher who plays the ostentatious Kean with panache. Laughs come thick and fast in this satirically farcical production with Kean’s preposterous assumption of his importance and his constant switching of characters to suit his mood, but the wistful “A real passion must be wonderful” and “What am I except what you have made of me? Fantasy - illusion.” show he is fully aware of his pretensions, at least in Sartre’s existentialist view.

Jane Murphy is Anne Danby, a pert and innocent young lady admirer of Kean who is determined to marry him – and she always gets her own way – but he is also involved with Elena, the Countess de Koefeld (Joanne Pearce), so of course complications develop with a remotely controlled secret door coming into play, and jealousies between the two ladies adding to the complications. There is a hilarious scene with Anne Danby taking the part of Desdemona but improvising her lines to suit herself causing the frantic intervention of prompter/dresser Salomon (a flawlessly judged performance by Sam Kelly).

Alex Avery is a debonair, man-of-the-world Prince of Wales, and Robert East the calm distinguished Danish Ambassador, the Count de Koefeld, so relaxed that he falls asleep during Kean’s performance – which is often the way with husbands.

Under Adrian Noble’s expert direction not a foot is put wrong, the whole cast perfoming with style, sincerity and perfect timing, but it is Sher who excels and lifts the whole show to the heights. Quite Magnificent!

Touring to Bath, Malvern and Brighton prior to opening at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue on 30th May.

Philip Fisher reviewed it in the West End.

This review was first published in Theatreworld Internet Magazine

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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