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

December 18, 2009 |  1:45 pm

Keira 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

Photo: Keira Knightley. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (7)

Quentin Letts writes for the Daily Mail, a tabloid which was successfully sued by Keira a few years ago for printing lies about her. Since she successfully sued them, they have been gunning for her. I would take the Daily Mail's review with a big grain of salt. She got good reviews for her debut performance, so congratulations Keira!

You might want to add these reviews that came out after you published the above reviews. All of them are pretty positive.

"But no one would say Knightley is just another Jennifer. The great difference is she’s got talent. She conveys Jennifer’s brittleness and Machiavellian coolness wonderfully, as well as her malicious flair... witty character assassinations... All in all, it’s a world Knightley must know well at first hand, and a very canny choice for a first foray on stage it is too. The result is wholly convincing. She can cut it."
- Christopher Hart, The Sunday Times

"A play about the perils of celebrity and falsity of the media seems the perfect platform for Keira Knightley’s West End debut, and the star of Pride and Prejudice and Pirates Of The Caribbean radiates knowingness and elegance as — of all things — a cosseted American actress... Keira Knightley brings a glossy self-possession to the part. She convinces as a smart young woman cocooned in what Alceste dubs “an ante-room to hell”."
- Henry Hitchings, London Evening Standard

"Could Keira cut it? She could, and she can, though one comes away from Thea Sharrock’s revival of Martin Crimp’s 1996 Moliere update admiring the girl’s wittiness in playing a stick thin Hollywood starlet trapped in a career cul-de-sac more than dying to see her again in Congreve or David Hare. The readiness, if not the reediness, is all. Keira Knightley is just 24, although it seems she’s been around for decades. And Crimp’s Jennifer in the hotel hothouse … is a perfect role for her … She is driving Damian Lewis’ splendidly angry playwright Alceste to distraction … Crimp preserves the five act shape, and his rhyming doggerel ‘feels’ like Moliere … Crimp was certainly prophetic in narrowing the play down to a showbiz satire … The references are sometimes strained beyond the perimeters of character, but Knightley sails serenely through, pretty as ever, her limited technique no bar to total comprehension of where she’s coming from."
- Michael Coveney, WhatsOnStage

The praise published here, and many more, can be found on the Plaudits page of KeiraWeb.com: www.keiraweb.com/plaudits.html

Is it almost impossible to get a ticket for this revival of "The Misanthrope" because it's updated Moliere in the West End? No, it's because it features the stage debut of Keira Knightley. And the good news is that in the role of a beautiful, willful movie star she's perfectly fine... Gaining in strength throughout the show, Knightley has a spot-on American accent and a nice line in disdain that turns tough as events overtake her. Producers may not yet be making lists of further theater roles in which to cast her, but Knightley silences the media doom-mongers and will ensure a financially successful run.
- David Benedict, Variety

Excellent play with an outstanding performance of Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley.
- LondonTheatreland.co.uk

Actually the reviews are more generally positive than Mixed per say. Here's what they had to say.

"So it's a tonic to report that Knightley finesses all this ethical fussing by turning in a performance that is not only strikingly convincing but, at times, rather thrilling in its satiric aplomb."
-The independent

"Gaining in strength throughout the show, Knightley has a spot-on American accent and a nice line in disdain that turns tough as events overtake her. Producers may not yet be making lists of further theater roles in which to cast her, but Knightley silences the media doom-mongers and will ensure a financially successful run."

"Knightley’s combination of shimmering intelligence, beauty, defiance and fear is about as effective as you could hope for."
- Andrew Haydon, CultureWars.org.uk

"Keira was extremely good. I thought she was even better than Damian Lewis, which was a real surprise to me. She did a wonderful job."
- Dee Jeffrey, Evening Standard

This is what some people ACTUALLY said about her. Note what I said about the independent. I find it funny you forgot to mention that part.

You know. I realized something. Critics never mattered. I mean despite Lett's idiotic rantings and pure hatred towards Keira Knightley, this play has broken box office records for the Comedy Theater. And in general the audience has enjoyed her performance and agreed she could act.

So to hell with all you critics out there. You truly know nothing.

I really am quite startled to see all this praise about Keira Knightley after her stage performance. I personally watched the play and had not read any critics beforehand, so I do not think I was let down by any other expectations I had accumulated other than the ones I had as a result of her beauty. Unfortunately, I was utterly disappointed with her performance. Maybe it's because I'm a theatre student who frequently goes to the theatre, but studies performance instead of merely criticism, that I see her performance in such a light. She had a pretty fake American accent and did not seem at ease with her body at all. The thing about theatre is that every performance is ephemeral and never the same as the night before, so perhaps I was unlucky enough to catch her worst performance. Whatever the case, I hope to see a better performance by her in the future.

I’m not surprised at the praise she has gotten. I saw the play a week ago and I enjoyed her performance. Again Maybe I’m not over analyzing it like a few people ( not that there is anything wrong with that) but I think for the most part she did a pretty good job for her first time stage performer. From what I heard from friends and other people who are in “the biz” I hear that it is hard to go from acting on screen and transitioning to stage. So I give her credit for giving a go at it. And from the other audience reactions. She seemed to have won them over. So I agree with the praise that she has gotten.


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