Kean

Jean-Paul Sartre, adapted from the play by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Frank Hauser
Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
(2007)

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From time to time, great actors or actresses will take to the road with shows that are effectively Shakespeare's (or Dickens') Greatest Hits.

These are carefully compiled to demonstrate the virtuosity and versatility of the performer and generally prove to be popular, both with those who are in love with the writer and others who worship the actor. They can also prove to be good introduction to great literature for youngsters with attention-span problems.

Adrian Noble's sometimes confused and confusing revival of this portrait of the great actor, Edmund Kean is at its best when it gives Sir Antony Sher ample opportunity to show off his skills as one of our greatest contemporary Shakespearean exponents.

It is a strange fact that a comedy which portrays a great English actor who built his reputation on the work of a great English playwright should have been created by a Frenchman based on another play by one of his fellow-countrymen.

The legendary philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre chose to create a surreal, modern play based on a work of the same title by Alexandre Dumas, père and launched it on the world stage to commemorate its originator's 150th birthday.

For those who confuse their fathers and sons, Alexandre Dumas, père is the man who wrote The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. Unsurprisingly, his vision of Edmund Kean was rather more heroic than that presented by Sartre in 1953.

As Kean's would-be acting partner and wife, the Irish Shop Girl Anne Danby describes him, the famous actor was "a drunk, a lecher, a melancholic drowned in debt". This is hardly the view that his numerous admirers in the stalls and boxes of Drury Lane and its environs would have had of a man whom they regarded as a handsome and all too eligible hero.

The play opens with a great opportunity for those who missed Sir Antony's Richard III to see its opening and then a brief reprise of the highlights, though possibly on this occasion influenced by an acting style from a century and a half earlier.

By the time that he had reached this late stage of his career, aged 48, the actor had almost become an amalgam of Shakespearean characters with any sense his own identity long gone, at least in his speech, where he moves into quotation at the drop of a hat.

This is clearly attractive to women, since he has Joanne Pearce playing Elena, the wife of the Danish ambassador to London, literally quivering every time he comes near. This in itself causes problems, not with her dozy husband played by Robert East, but the Prince of Wales no less.

This Prince, played by Alex Avery is a smug, lazy man who knows his own power and though he may not be having an affair with Elena, is adamant that Kean will not either.

The obvious alternative is bright young Irish actress, Jane Murphy as the doting Miss Danby. She may not be able to act but is devoted to getting her way and wants Kean and stage fame, even though these ambitions hardly pleases her elderly fiancé, Lord Nevill.

Eventually, despite the devoted support of his prompter and dresser Salomon, given real humanity by Sam Kelly, Kean comes a cropper on stage in an incongruous scene that seems drawn from his nightmares rather than reality.

He makes love, in the old sense, to Elena in one box, while starring on stage with the young Irish woman playing a particularly bad Desdemona to his Othello. Her angered beau and his friends then disrupt events with whistles as the plays both on and off stage collapse.

Remarkably, after all of this, Sartre manages to offer us a happy ending, with the actor and at least one pretty lady (not to mention the dresser) heading off for a hopeful future in the New World.

Kean reputedly lived from 1787 to 1833 but according to the programme notes, died at the age of 42. Whatever the details might be the setting of this production in the 1930s or 1940s feels wrong. What is said and done on stage does not accord with what is seen and that highlights some of the play's other weaknesses.

However, Kean will prove popular with Shakespeareans and Sherites even if in this production, it is too inconsistent to work well as a drama.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Kean.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher