Is it possible, even beneficial, to believe in despair? At the end of Martin Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope, currently running at the Comedy Theatre, the title’s namesake triumphantly declares to his shallow coterie: “I believe in despair”. His bitter valediction to the vapid and duplicitous celebrity “court”, which he is finally able to turn his back on, still remains the most powerful and fascinating sentiment of the play.
Aptly perhaps the most discussed element of this production has been Keira Knightley’s debut West End performance. Enough, if not too much, has already been said on that matter. She does a grand job; assured, and sufficiently mischievous as the young Hollywood star. She sparkles, but doesn’t quite dazzle. Say no more.
Much more interesting, however, is quite how pertinent Crimp’s adaptation of The Misanthrope is, and the questions it asks, of our present times. Transposed from the court of Louis XIV to the malicious world of actors and journalists today, the play’s preoccupation with endemic apathy and the toleration of sycophancy and hypocrisy means it overflows with barbed aphorism on how we might cope with life’s trials with least detriment to ourselves.
To wit: how, without becoming mad, bad and bitter, do you digest the phony fallout which has flowed so readily from parts of the City and No 10 regarding the reasons which led us into Britain’s deepest postwar recession? Or there’s the recent Copenhagen debacle and the transparent gloss and publicity gloop smeared over the conference’s failings by smiling delegates. Should we just smile meekly back? That’s the easy option after all.
The oracle for all such “positive psychology”—as it has been marketed—is Alceste’s sidekick. Very little is often made in review or criticism of the play of Alceste’s friend: Philinte in Moliere’s original, but in Crimp’s version known simply as John. Often the sole recipient of Alceste’s bitter rants on the failings of humanity, John’s response is continually one of serene apathy. The world is imperfect and meaningless to him, so one can and must only remain calm—he often sounds like a young Michael Winner—and indifferent to its provocations and imperfections. One must smile in the face of adversity if you are to survive.
Philinte is often seen as the dull, but measured and benign figure of the piece,…