Kean * * * *
at Malvern Festival Theatre
Review by Terry Grimley
One virtuoso actor pays tribute to another in this unusual comedy by Jean Paul Sartre.
Edmund Kean died in 1833, burned out by a life of excess and a brilliant acting career which lit up Shakespeare, according to Coleridge, as though by flashes of lightning. Sartre's play, which is being revived for the first time since 1990, was based on one by Alexander Dumas written shortly after Kean's death.
Picking up the theme of theatrical artifice and running with it, Adrian Noble's production initially confuses by setting the play not in Kean's era but in Sartre's. Transported to a setting of world-weary 1950s upper-class society, Kean is pursuing the stagestruck wife of the Danish ambassador while fending off the similarly interested Prince of Wales and the attentions of a young woman who plans to become the wife who will impose order on his life.
Disorder, however, is its essence. The play explores the notion that genius and chaos are intricately connected to remarkable comic effect as Kean pursues his muse, flees his demons, gives us snippets of Shakespeare and longs to return to his showbusiness origins as a tumbler.
It's a heady mix, but it needs a remarkable actor to make it fly – which it does, albeit intermittently. And it certainly has one in Antony Sher who, lapsing effortlessly into Cockney as Kean sentimentalises his tumbling days, persuades us for a couple of hours that he was born to play no other role (except, possibly, Richard III and Shylock, of which we also get a taste).
There is good support from a remarkably large cast, with Jane Murphy completely charming as the would-be wife and inept Desdemona – in a heart-in-mouth, castastrophically funny account of Othello – and Sam Kelly as the seen-it-all prompter. In every way this is a rare night in the theatre, about which I suspect we'll be hearing a great deal when it arrives in the West End.
* Running time: two hours 20 minutes, Until Saturday.