Jean-Paul Sartre and Edmund Kean do not seem obvious bed-fellows but the existentialist novelist and philosopher found himself writing an adaptation of Dumas pre’s play about the great English actor in 1953 at the behest of Pierre Brasseur. The latter, one of France’s most famous classical actors of the mid-twentieth century is perhaps best remembered now for playing Frdrick Lematre in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis. And Lematre was the actor for whom Dumas had written his original version of Kean in 1836.
The weakness of the plays of Sartre and his fellow existentialist Albert Camus is a tendency to spell out philosophical thought in a linear and verbose fashion. Beckett, a much more natural dramatic writer, just did it, creating stunning and poetic images mixing content and form and avoiding the endless verbiage.
Not that Kean really explores existentialist thought in anything more than passing. There is talk of what it is to be a human being, aren’t we all living behind masks like actors, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is inherent reference to theatrical tradition aplenty whiffs of Moliere, Pirandello, Shakespeare of course, the classic French farces but I think you’d be barking up the wrong tree to think that there’s anything too deep and meaningful in it.
It’s actually all rather entertaining. There’s nothing like watching a bunch of old luvvies strutting their stuff and taking themselves too seriously. Edmund Kean was a drunk, a philanderer, an addict to his art who couldn’t quite cope with everyday life and retreated inside the shell of his world of fantasy and make-believe.
Sir Antony Sher is very impressive in his portrayal of the actor. We see snippets of parts that Sher himself has played memorably: Richard III, Shylock, Macbeth and at most length Othello, where I couldn’t help detecting a little touch of Larry in the Knight. As he “succumbs to an attack of madness” during a performance, real-life swarming over the footlights, he’s like a wounded animal, huffing and puffing, as his mind unravels.
Adrian Noble’s production is attractively designed by Mark Thompson, the action mostly contained within an inner stage surrounded by a gilded proscenium, looking like something out of Pollock’s Toy Museum.
He chooses to set the offstage action in Sartre’s own time, rather than the early 19th Century, and it works rather well, a bar scene in particular straight out of Roads to Freedom. You could argue that it doesn’t fit to have a modern dress Prince of Wales at a time when England didn’t actually have one, but that seems to miss the point.
There are strong performances from the other cast members, principally Alex Avery as the Prince of Wales (acting out snatches of Prince Hal to Kean’s Falstaff), Joanne Pearce as the actor’s would-be married lover and Jane Murphy as the young Anne Danby, smitten with both the ageing thespian and his art.
For a bit of a theatrical romp, surprisingly farcical at times, with dark overtones, this is well worth catching during its short West End run.