When the curtain rises, we enjoy a retro bonus as Antony Sher, playing Richard III to a Drury Lane audience, takes a crippled leap downstage, a reminder of his RSC ‘bottled spider’ of two decades ago. But this crafty calling card could suggest that Sher and Edmund Kean, both short and fiery, are actors in the same mould, mercurial stars who can snap into character, then instantly switch mood and accent to suit the demands of a passing moment.
Dumas’ play depicted Kean as a drunkard and womaniser drawing on personal experience to portray emotion on stage. But Sartre’s satirical adaptation, while sticking to Dumas’ plot, shows a tragedian with an identity crisis whose whole life has become a theatrical performance, seeing true feeling as another name for bad acting and his social betters as “bad actors.”
Mark Thompson’s design sets the action inside a gilded proscenium with almost as many instant changes as Sher’s Kean - from the social whirl of an embassy soiree to backstage farce, pub encounters and a Drury Lane benefit night ruined by prompts and catcalls from toffs in the boxes.
Adrian Noble’s lively staging advances the period to the mid-fifties, when Sartre’s play opened in Paris, with Joanne Pearce’s Elena - Kean’s mistress - chic in matronly Dior ‘new-look’ as the Danish ambassador’s wife, surrounded by a court circle in black tie and little black dresses.
Sher’s Kean plays Falstaff to Alex Avery’s debonair Prince of Wales, enjoys a close Wolfit-like relationship with Sam Kelly as his dresser, becomes a Hackney clown among circus folk, and offers telling moments of Olivier-like Shylock and Othello. But the richest romantic comedy comes from his Svengali relationship with Jane Murphy as the adoring Anne Danby, coached to become Kean’s inept Desdemona for a one-night stand and eventually his wife in exile.