La Bête

David Hirson
Comedy Theatre
(2010)

Publicity image

First time around, David Hirson's debut play lasted a mere 25 performances on Broadway but won an Olivier in London. The chances are that this transatlantic revival might cause a similarly diverse reaction.

Like Sam Mendes' Bridge Project playing just the other side of the river at the Old Vic, La Bête has a cast drawn from both Britain and the USA and after a couple of months at the Comedy will decamp to Broadway's Music Box Theatre.

The big names should help sales of this Molière parody, as popular American actor David Hyde Pierce from Frasier joins our own Mark Rylance fresh from the triumph of Jerusalem and Joanna Lumley making a rare stage appearance.

Though Mark Thompson's towering library set and costumes look like France in the mid-17th Century, except for the last few minutes, the sensibilities (and accents) in Matthew Warchus' revival are pure contemporary American.

The characters, or at least their names, are drawn from Molière's life and times, with the main dramatic tension centring on two actor-playwrights. Rylance is the post-modern populist Valere who riles Elomire, generally regarded as the next Corneille and played by Hyde Pierce.

The former is a comic buffoon with buck teeth that might have been borrowed from a passing horse, owing a little perhaps to Tartuffe but much further over the top, while his humourless host is more in the misanthropic mode.

The comedy of the first half hour rests firmly in the hands of Mark Rylance as the titular beast. He delivers a breathtaking and breathless tour de force that takes up most of that duration. It is presented in verse that works hard for its rhymes and will either leave you doubled up with laughter or pained. Either way, one has to admire an actor who can deliver so long a monologue with impeccable timing and the full gamut of facial tics.

By the end of it, the other actors have a lot to make up. Hyde Pierce gets some good, grumpy lines and laughs for himself, playing a character that is far more palatable and believable.

Miss Lumley, who doesn't seem entirely at home in iambic pentameter, is something else. Her part has changed gender to accommodate the Absolutely Fabulous actress. Inexplicably too, while every other cast member has an American accent, the petulant Princess has Miss Lumley's familiar cut glass received English version.

This red-headed Princess, for some reason attired in nightwear as if recently roused from bed, appears modelled on Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder, shrilly determined to support dreadful, boorish Valere against all logic.

While the first 95 minutes of the evening present good, not very clean American fun, the last 10 begin to draw out French morality from centuries before, as this microcosmic sample of the world is asked to choose between the fun-loving fool and earnest genius. It would be unfair to reveal which triumphs.

It will be fascinating to see how the limited runs in both London and New York are received. For a show that could be seen as pant-wettingly funny or tediously gross, two hits, two misses or, as in 1991, one of each, are all perfectly possible.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for La Bête

Reviewer: Philip Fisher