Kean – April 2007


By Jean-Paul Sartre, adapted from the play by Alexandre Dumas

Directed by Adrian Noble

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 2nd April 2007

This play opens with Antony Sher, as Kean, as Richard III, giving us his “Now is the winter of our discontent…”. It was particularly memorable, as Kean’s Richard, a serious hunchback, uses a walking stick, and lurches to the front of the stage in a manner highly reminiscent – OK, let’s just come out and say it – it was pinched directly from Antony Sher’s previous Richard III, where he cavorted round the stage like a mad spider on two crutches. The “echo”, if we may call it that, was obviously recognised by a fair number of the audience, judging by the laugh it got. It was a good start to a tricky but entertaining play.

The set was a stage, on the stage, with lots of room to either side. A painted backdrop (and I had to look really hard at this one), gave us a plush red theatre curtain, and when that was raised, we could see the audience behind Kean. Steve spotted that one of them was asleep. From the later scenes, I’d guess it was the Danish ambassador.

We romped through selected highlights of Richard III, and then the stage was cleared to create space for a cocktail party, given by the Danish ambassador. We learn that his wife is infatuated with Kean, who has been invited to attend the party later. There are various bits of gossip, and then the throng, now joined by the Prince of Wales, is entertained by the news that Kean and a young lady have run off together, until Kean himself arrives to deny the story. He passes a letter to the ambassador’s wife, pretending it will prove his innocence in this matter, but in reality it’s a love letter for her. She agrees to come to his dressing room the following night by a secret door, wearing a veil.

The next night, Kean fusses about whether the door has been oiled, and whether the lady’s coming or not. He’s put out by the arrival of the Prince of Wales, who wants him to give up the ambassador’s wife altogether, in return for having his debts paid off. They lay a bet – if she turns up, Kean will have her, if not, then he’ll sign the paper and renounce his love. When a woman does turn up, the bet is settled, but not the way Kean expects.

The lady who has turned up is the other woman, the one he’s supposed to have run off with. She wants to be an actress and marry Kean, not necessarily in that order, and the whole situation becomes more complicated when the ambassador’s wife turns up later for her assignation. How many women can Kean keep on the go at one time?

In the end, he and the ambassador’s wife are just playing at being lovers, and they’re both happy to go their separate ways. Kean’s jealousy has led him to insult the Prince of Wales in a full theatre, in a manner considered treasonable, and he’s lucky to get off with a few years of exile. Fortunately, he can head off to America with the young lady who wants to marry him, so all seems to end reasonably happily.

There was a great deal to enjoy in this production. In theory, the play is examining the nature of acting and “real emotions”. When is Kean acting, and when is he being “honest” about his feelings. There are no set answers, although the play suggests there is no difference between acting and the rest of life. The scene where Kean and the ambassador’s wife play out their melodramatic love affair was very entertaining – they stop for a breather, then get going again.

The costumes were possibly 1930s, possibly 1950s; it’s a bit difficult to tell with upper crust evening dress, as it doesn’t change so quickly as ordinary fashions. All the performances were excellent, and I remember various ideas coming up at the time which I can’t remember now. It was also good fun to have the Danish ambassador as one of the characters, given Kean’s reputation for playing Hamlet.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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