Keira Knightley in ‘The Misanthrope’ in London: What did the critics think?


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In Britain, an actor isn’t really an actor unless he or she has performed on stage. And so it came to pass this week that film star Keira Knightley made her theatrical debut in a West End production of ‘The Misanthrope.’

The 24-year-old Oscar-nominated actress, whose films include ‘The Duchess,’ ‘Atonement’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ has not hidden the fact that she was nervous about what critics might say about her maiden theatrical voyage.


Knightley was expecting that she would be ‘burned alive,’ according to a BBC News report. She added: ‘I thought if I don’t do theatre right now, I think I’m going to start being too terrified to do it.’

Currently playing at London’s Comedy Theatre, this production of Moliere’s ‘The Misanthrope’ is actually a liberally updated version of the 17th century drama by Martin Crimp. Also starring Damian Lewis and directed by Thea Sharrock, the play is set in modern-day London among the city’s cultural and theatrical set. Knightley’s role may not seem like much of a stretch: she plays an American movie actress who becomes the object of affection for Lewis’ discontented British playwright.

Did London’s stage critics bare their fangs for Knightley’s debut? As it turns out, the actress’ initial fears may have been only partially justified.

Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph raved about the actress, writing: ‘This stinging, zinging play would be a hit without Knightley. With her, it becomes unmissable.’ He added that ‘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.’

The Independent’s Paul Taylor, like some of his colleagues, commented on Knightley’s alarming slenderness. He called her a ‘poster-girl for natural thinness’ and added that ‘she makes Olive Oyl look chunkier than Roseanne Barr.’ As for her stage talent, he praised Knightley for ‘turning in a performance that is not only strikingly convincing but, at times, rather thrilling in its satiric aplomb.’

Michael Billington of the Guardian wrote: ‘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.’

Benedict Nightingale of the Times offered a mixed assessment of Knightley’s theatrical abilities: ‘She 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.’

Less impressed was the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, who described the actress as having ‘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.’

-- David Ng