“I have listened to you speechify for what feels like a century in hell”
Written in 1991 by American David Hirson, La Bête is set in the French court of Languedoc in the seventeenth century and is a pastiche of plays by the likes of Molière, going so far as being written entirely in verse. The rather staid and self-satisfied Elomire is the leader of a troupe of actors in favour with the Princess, but when she orders him to include the brash and vulgar Valere the stage is set for an almighty debate on artistic integrity versus commercialism and the role of patronage in the arts.
It has been cast to the hilt, Mark Rylance following on from his well-received (if not by yours truly) turn in Jerusalem plays the boorish Valere, David Hyde-Pierce making his West End debut as the prim Elomire and Joanna Lumley making a rare stage appearance as the Princess. And such is the confidence behind this production that a Broadway run has already been booked to run straight after the West End run finishes. Such confidence is interesting given that the original Broadway run flopped quite badly, something that me and my companion both well understand, for a variety of reasons.
Much as with The Misanthrope, I felt isolated from the audience at large right from the start as they whooped and laughed heartily from the very first rhyming couplet. Maybe it was the Saturday night audience, maybe I hadn’t had enough to drink but it is a while since I found repeated fart jokes and the mocking of the afflicted as funny as those around me. I can respect the virtuosity of Rylance’s opening speech which lasts over 30 minutes; it is an impressive piece of theatre that probably only he could carry off right now and it is intermittently very funny, but resorting to crude toilet humour and its subsequent reaction just disappointed me.
The dominance of Valere as a character, but also Rylance’s portrayal means that the play has little place to go after the opening salvo. Hyde-Pierce reacts well to all the posturing but there’s only so many faces of disgust one can show over half an hour and even when finally allowed to speak, he isn’t allowed any depth or complexity, it feels a criminal waste of his talents. And sad to say, there’s no honesty in Lumley’s performance as the Princess until far too late when she is finally allowed to do something more than posture and pout: both these characters being sadly underwritten and ultimately having been cast way above their remit.
Part of the problem comes from the form. It is written exclusively in rhyming couplets and I have to say that all the cast did exceptionally well in their verse reading, all of them concerned with telling the story rather than making it rhyme. But it is one trick which soon begins to try one’s patience, it is clever for sure, but just not particularly dramatic or engaging and by the final act, unbearably repetitive. There’s a chance for a raucous Springtime for Hitler type rendition of one of Valere’s plays but it is just a wasted opportunity as Two Boys from Cadiz barely raises a chuckle.
I also could not really work out what the play was trying to say. Having invested so much work in setting Valere up as the epitome of self-obsessed, low-brow showmanship, we’re then asked to buy him suddenly becoming an erudite defender of commercial art. This tension between art and commerce is never really satisfactorily dealt with and so as we slog to the finish line, it does become somewhat heavy going. So a curious one: it will probably be a relative success here, I’m not sure how it will fare across the ocean, but ultimately, Rylance’s opening speech aside, it’s a bit of a waste of some considerable talent.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with no interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 4th September