Sir Antony Sher is a superb actor, certainly one of the greatest of his generation, but he dose not live up to my high expectations in Kean at the Apollo. Jean Paul Satre’s play, a version of an earlier play by Dumas, is about the great Regency actor Edmund Kean, of whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said, ‘Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’. Unfortunately the play is not quite as striking, in fact it is a mess that hammers home its point about the artifice of life, and of actors in particular, far too heavily and with no elegance at all. I couldn’t help but feeling that Satre was prevailed upon to adapt the play, and didn’t really have much to say beyond the underlying premise. There are elements of comedy and farce, but little action of dramatic importance or emotional impact, yes things happen and a story is told, but I watched the characters inhabiting the stage with utter indifference most of the time. This is no Brechtian or Pirandellian masterstroke; it is simply limp writing and nonexistent characterisation.
The production, directed by Adrian Noble, has been brought forward in time to a period I would guess at between the 1920’s or 30’s, which I don’t think had a major effect either way on the enjoyment of the play, so long as you clearly understand the ‘stage’ acting is Regency not 20th Century. We see Kean’s chaotic life, he is an emotionally unstable presence, lashing out and demanding, saying that he can’t continue performing, but absolutely unable to resist acting on stage and in life, which of course are nearly the same thing for Kean. Sir Antony’s portrayal or Shakespearian characters is legendary, so the moments of the play which do come alive are when he is playing the bard, particularly Richard III at the beginning of the evening. Other than that Sher has very little room for manoeuvre, Kean is a high pitched theatrical, and that is how he plays it. His first love interest, Elena, the Danish Ambassador’s wife is played by Joanne Pearce with a bizarre drawl, the kind of accent you would expect from the child of a white South African and an Central European cleaning lady. Anne Danby is also rather taken with the short and stocky Kean, she is a young woman from a mercantile family, disowned for her scandalous conduct. Jane Murphy plays Danby as wide eyed girl who knows what she wants as long as it’s Kean, and her performance was too artificial even for a play about artifice. It was interesting to see stage actors as big celebrities in a way unimaginable now, and the now respectable serious acting profession being looked down upon by high society figures, despite entertaining them nightly, but these are minor points in the course of a two hour play.
As someone who loves the stage, I really want to like this backstage tale, but the play has no very little to say for itself.