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The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean

by on 6 November 2017

Consumed by the Drama of Himself

The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean

The Exchange, Twickenham, 5th November

Review by Matthew Grierson

Can we love a fine performer who is a dreadful man? It’s a question we should ask of the Romantic tragedian Edmund Kean in Ian Hughes’ absorbing one-man show, as practically the first thing we learn about him is that he – Kean – is making his wife, who is six months pregnant, walk 180 miles to Swansea where he has been offered a job. Yet he – Hughes – pursues the tragic arc of Kean’s career from strolling player to West End star, then to sozzled has-been, with such virtuosity that it is difficult not to sympathise with him.


This is partly a function of Hughes’ writing, which aims to showcase both his own and Kean’s versatility, and he deftly manages the lightning changes required when, for example, his joy at being invited to perform at Drury Lane becomes bereavement and impotent rage at his son’s premature death. But it’s also partly that Kean has to be built up, because a performer from the age of the stage leaves no direct record for the present in the way that (say) his contemporary Lord Byron does. So Hughes’ Kean is a wry raconteur, an intimate sharing his life story and interspersing it with displays of admirable range to conjure the various company managers and committee members he comes across. His manner is indeed so engaging that it overcomes the limitations of the production. For instance, the changes of scene that calibrate each act are largely unnecessary, because Kean is rather so free and easy with his narration, his showman’s sleight of hand shuffling past and present, that the Turner-lite backdrops become redundant when a tavern or dressing room might be more appropriate to the retrospective relation of the life story.

Hughes thus ably conveys the greatness that was evident to men such as Byron and Hazlitt (not many actors would commend their reviewers as “astute young men” as Kean does the latter). But because there is little distance between audience and performer – no, performers – it is difficult to see the tragedian’s own fatal flaws. With more flecks of arrogance, delusion or inconsistency, we would have been better able to glimpse him in his less pleasant but truer complexity. Yet with Hughes on his side, Kean will always seem more heroic than tragic.

As a result, when his downfall does come midway through the second act, it is not altogether clear where it has come from, as we’ve been party more to his joys and japes than to his demons. We’ve seen how he is affected by poverty and by the death of his son, certainly, but these are flashes of darkness in a tale that is otherwise reminiscent of Henry Fielding in its picaresque quality. Though the brandy has been with him since the first act, where the impoverished Kean hails its advent as that of a lifelong friend, it enables more humour than horror, as though he is a Regency Withnail; and when we see Kean preening at the height of his fame, there is still a loveable twinkle in Hughes’ eye, and the little jig he gives upon reading that his performance of the Dane has “brought down the classical school” is not only joyous but a nice callback to earlier comic roles as a monkey or Harlequin. Rather than have us take Kean’s word that his acting style was “innovative” or “revolutionary”, Hughes also begs, “Let me illustrate” – whereupon we are treated not only to a rendition of his Shylock and Richard but also to his rival John Kemble’s stilted, singsong delivery and the pirated Shakespeare of the off-West End performances, giving us a sense of the broader theatrical context. That said, it’s odd to note how much Kean’s tragic style is not realism as we have come to know it but somewhat hammy and formulaic, especially compared with the easy, modern idiom with which Hughes’ Kean comes across.

Ian Hughes= Edmund K

When we again see the tragedian in his cups, Hughes’ portrayal of a man about to undo himself communicates that moment with conviction.But I would have appreciated a little more insight into the causes of it, of the kind the best tragedy provides. Why, having fulfilled the ambition that has nursed him through the vicissitudes of the preceding hour, which we and his offstage wife have endured, does Kean regale us with the arrangements he makes to have young actresses available to him in his dressing room? It’s a pointed and sadly timely reminder of the abuse of power by public figures, but reading his decline and fall as a modern narrative of celebrity denies us an opportunity to see what makes Kean’s story truly distinctive, and thus properly tragic.

Does it lie in the further remove of Kean’s childhood, recounted but not performed, which saw him abandoned by his mother and brought up by a strict aunt, also an actress? Kean does after all quote Hamlet in his misogyny: “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Like the prince, he too is haunted, and the touching end to the first act sees him take the ghost hand of his younger self, Hughes imagining Kean in turn imagining the boy’s presence – while all the time we are imagining his son Howard, dead at the age of four.


Perhaps the true tragedy of Kean is not of a man undone by ambition, drink or lust, but of one who cannot separate his life from the performance of it. While he can, at his height, imagine claiming Kemble’s crown as the King of London’s Theatreland, at the end he cannot even reach the prop crown of Henry V off a chair as he lies prostrate with gout on the dressing room floor. So if it is the case that a man who lived for tragedy has made a tragedy of his life, then he is lucky to have an actor as understanding as Hughes is to perform it for him.

Matthew Grierson
November 2017

Photography courtesy of Ian Hughes

Editor’s Note:

Ian Hughes is an acclaimed Shakespearean actor and member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  ​The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean was first performed  at The Other Place (the RSC’s studio theatre) earlier this year.

The Exchange, Twickenham is the country’s newest theatre, which opened in October and is opposite Twickenham railway station.


From → Drama, Reviews

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