Sunday, July 04, 2010

La Bête - Comedy Theatre

There are some performers in all fields that just seem special; the ones that you can't help but think will genuinely be remembered beyond their lifetime as one of the best. David Hyde Pierce - Niles Crane to you and me, and physical comedian extraordinaire to US theatre-lovers - has to be one those performers, right? A master of comic timing, but also blessed with the capacity to create moments of heart-rending drama, his 11-year turn in Frasier was, pretty much, a succession of genius looks, phrasing and pratfalls. I am, you might have worked out, something of a fan.

It's a love very much fostered by my dad, so we dutifully bought tickets for his West End debut as soon as they were released - a decision made easier by the fact that his chosen production, La Bête, would also star the superlative Mark Rylance who gave that barnstorming performance in Jerusalem last year.

You wouldn't know it from the publicity shots, but this play, though only twenty years old, is written in rhyming verse and set in 17th century (or somewhere thereabouts) France. As Elomire, Pierce is a passionate, serious and rather self-important playwright working under the patronage of the nameless 'Princess' (Joanna Lumley) who tells him that - to keep her support - he must admit a popular street clown into his troupe of players.

Where Elomire is wedded to innovation, aesthetic virtue and above all ideas and integrity, Valere (Rylance) is a shameless populist - as well as egocentric, immune to criticism and verbose to the point of verbal diarrhoea. In fact, verbal diarrhoea doesn't really cover it; the fact that Rylance has to remember a twenty-five minute uninterrupted speech probably does. Just. The two stars are undoubtedly superbly cast - Rylance has the chance to be huge, crude and ridiculously over the top, and Pierce channels a little of that Cranian pomposity and incredulity while Valere rambles on (and on and on) about himself, how loved he is, and how he is the great literary genius of the age.

Pierce's brilliance is such that, even while Rylance is stomping around chewing up the scenery, you always keep one eye on him to make sure you don't miss any exasperated reactions. And it's a good job, because his role, perhaps inevitably, is sometimes overwhelmed by Rylance's. Perhaps nothing could ever really compete with an expansive and consistently funny near-half hour speech, but when Elomire's repost - though cutting - finally comes, it rather pales into insignificance, when what you really want is something majestic, operatic in its criticism and in proportion.

All in all, La Bête is something of a Problem Play; both in the sense that it has its problems, and that it literally shares with the likes of The Winter's Tale a propensity to veer from the broadest comedy to moments of real ambiguity and awkwardness. There is, for example, a rather heavy-handed moment when the audience is meant to consider whether it really is Valere who is 'the beast', but then the ending (which I won't give away) seems to drag the audience in one particular direction. And the beauty and brilliance of that long speech - both in the dense imagery of the writing and mesmeric performance - means that the play is top-heavy.

It must be admitted, though, that these problems only really reveal themselves, and indeed intensify, on reflection, far from the auditorium, and some of the uncomfortable moments are certainly intended. While in your seat, you are simply rapt by the central performances and that speech - and Pierce's mute response - has to be one of the most fun 25 minutes to be found in the West End at the moment. An oddity, yes; flawed, certainly; but entertaining? Hugely.


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

How did I miss your re-design : the place looks LOVELY!

Anyway, great review. I'd have loved to have squeezed in a visit. Glad it was a worthwhile oddity!

Lesley said...

Lovely review Anna and yes,the performances of Mark Rylance,who seemed thoroughly in his element,and David Hyde Pierce ,made it extremely enjoyable.

chatterbox said...

Ahhh I am soooo looking forward to this, but somehow haven't got my tickets yet. *scuttles off quickly to review availability*

And great redesign by the way!

Interval Drinks said...

Thought your review was pretty much spot on. Yes, it's a flawed piece, but it didn't bother me at all while watching, only on reflection. Mark Rylance gets away things that would have looked appallingly over-the-top in lesser hands. David Hyde Pierce is very good at reactive acting, but I too wish he'd been given a more meaty response with which he could really let fly.

Love the redesign too.

Anna Lowman (annawaits) said...

Thanks y'all!