The Philanthropist

Christopher Hampton
Donmar Warehouse
(2005)

Production photo
Production photo

These days, to say that the Donmar has another hit is the equivalent to announcing that nobody has shot themselves in your living room or the Prime Minister has not been assassinated. Under Sam Mendes and latterly Michael Grandage the theatre has consistently produced a level of excellence matched nowhere else except possibly the National Theatre.

Having said that, both of the unlikely events referred to in the first sentence take place in the opening ten minutes of Christopher Hampton's stylish comedy, first seen starring Alec McCowen and Jane Asher in 1970.

The Philanthropist was originally written as a contemporary response to Molière's Le Misanthrope and is set in the luxurious rooms of an Oxbridge don. These are nicely recreated by designer Tim Shortall and the outstanding feature, in every sense, is a 17-storey high bookcase.

Although the world outside is racked by revolution, a Lieutenant-Colonel in drag has murdered not only the Prime Minister but nine members of the Cabinet, in many ways nothing could be calmer than our setting in the byways of academe.

It is only in the mind of the protagonist Philip, played by the ever excellent Simon Russell Beale, that turmoil equal to that in a revolutionary country boils over.

He should be happy. He is a successful Professor of Philology surrounded by the books and words that he loves, engaged to a stunning student and, as a result, the envy of his friends. However, some people are just not made to enjoy life and its simple pleasures.

Following an explosive first scene that could win awards as the most memorable in any play, the drama moves into space already explored by director David Grindley in Abigail's Party. Philip has invited five friends and colleagues to a party that is gruesome in the banality and the unpleasantness of a group of highly intelligent people seeking to score points off each other.

The worst of all is an author named Braham, played by Simon Day. He is the epitome of political incorrectness and dresses in the fashion of the time, droopy moustache, purple velvet suit and mauve shirt complete with ruff. This self-obsessed man is even a mildly jealous when he hears that he is not on an anarchists' list of top 25 authors to be assassinated.

With their posturing and flirting, the rest are little better and the inevitable aftermath is that are all six are paired off in beds, although the combinations are obviously wrong.

The highlight of The Philanthropist is a long scene set the following morning when the guilty Celia, Philip's fiancée, confronts him having discovered that he has spent the previous night with Siobhan Hewlett's voracious Araminta.

One expects Russell Beale to be an expert in portraying a weak man in a crisis. Anna Madeley as an uncertain Celia shows that she is becoming one of the best young actresses on the circuit, confirming the impression that she made in The Cosmonaut's Last Message on the same stage earlier in the summer.

Like Russell Beale's last play in modern dress, Jumpers by Sir Tom Stoppard, The Philanthropist is a happy combination of intellectual erudition and low comedy which proves to be well worth reviving.

The combination of a wonderful acting pair and the usual high standard of direction from David Grindley, currently riding high with Journey's End and What the Butler Saw already in the West End, ensures an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher