Page last updated at 16:43 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

Critics' views on Keira Knightley's West End debut

Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope.  Photo credit: Geraint Lewis/Rex Features

Keira Knightley has received mixed reviews for her West End debut in an updated production of Moliere's 17th Century classic satire The Misanthrope, at London's Comedy Theatre.

Speaking to the BBC earlier this week, the Atonement star said she expected to be "burned alive" by the critics for her portrayal of a US film star.

The play, directed by Thea Sharrock, also stars Damian Lewis and Tara Fitzgerald.


Keira Knightley may be one of 21st century cinema's revered objects but on stage she proves little better than adequate.

Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in The Misanthrope. Photo credit: Geraint Lewis/Rex Features
Damian Lewis plays Alceste, a British playwright

Her arrival on the West End in an interesting (but intellectually disingenuous) treatment of Moliere's Le Misanthrope is, well, on the dull side.

She has all the charisma of a serviceable goldfish. Miss Knightley has a flawless face but it does not move about much.

In a film actress this is often an advantage but on stage it is a snag. It's like giving a carpenter a blunt chisel.


In the early scenes, Knightley seems a touch tentative, lacking in both energy and presence. In the second half however, in which she bitchily insults a false friend and has a real humdinger of a row with the jealous Alceste, she reveals both power and poignancy.

She also makes you realise why Damian Lewis's splendid Alceste is so obsessed with the movie star, even though she represents everything he despises. There is a mystery to Knightley's allure, and an endearing streak of mischief in her portrayal of the actress.

This stinging, zinging play would be a hit without Knightley. With her, it becomes unmissable.

Kelly Price, Chuk Iwuji and Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope. Photo credit: Donald Cooper/Rex Features
The play also stars Kelly Price and Chuk Iwuji

Keira Knightley catches the waywardness, occasionally the steel behind the velvety manner, the narcissistic love of attention, but not the authority to explain how she can dominate a gathering by more than beauty. Partly the reason is physical. She's so wispy she could fit into an umbrella stand. Partly it's a want of vox, partly a lack of the assurance that more time on stage may bring her.

As for Lewis, he's the fierce obsessive, the pale-faced absolutist happiest when denouncing triviality, hypocrisy and a human race he wishes was extinct.


Can Keira Knightley cut it? That is the first question prompted by this revival of Martin Crimp's updated version of Molière's play. Since she's playing a movie star in her 20s, one could say that she is not unduly stretched.

But Knightley brings to the role fine, sculpted features, palpable intelligence and a nice mix of faux-innocence and flirtiness. Even if she doesn't always know what to do with her hands, she gives a perfectly creditable performance.

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