Review: La Bete

MAUD DROMGOOLE goes against the critical consensus and adores Mark Rylance’s versified flatulence.

David Hyde Pierce E4 Frasier Joanna Lumley Mark Rylance Stephen Ouimette T4 The Daily Mail West end

Directed by Matthew Warchus.

What a treat. If you happen to find yourself in London with £30 to spare (perhaps get your parents to pay – you can assure them it’s highly educationally beneficial) ignore the reviews; it’s a brilliant show. It is set in 17th century France, it is written almost exclusively in rhyming couplets, and it is fast paced and funny. It’s a crowd pleasing show that provokes a sense of community among its audience.

The story is simple. Elomire (David Hyde Pierce – or Niles from Frasier to the likes of us), an eloquent, well educated man with passion for the theatre, is confronted with the unattractive prospect of Valere, a buffoonish, self-celebrating, street-performing clown (Mark Rylance) joining the ranks of his theatre troop. We watch as the two men compete to win the royal approval of the princess (Joanna Lumley).

Mark Rylance (or the Beast to the likes of us) proves his skill in the art of matchless monologue by not only holding attention for a full half hour speech, but doing so through prosthetic teeth and explosive flatulence. Throughout this performance Hyde Pierce and Stephen Ouimette (playing Elomire’s sidekick) provide compelling expressions of my own incredulous reactions. Even the most damning critics have concedes its brilliance; undoubtedly a highlight.

Though credible for its entertainment purposes alone the script itself (written in 1991) raises questions key to the pursuit of theatre today. Should we produce literary brilliance, the polished result of academic research? Or, in the interests of broad populism, provide accessible entertainment to be enjoyed by all? Both are needed in my life and thank God there is a certain democracy in the commissioning of drama today.

I freely admit that on a hungover morning I am far more of the E4 than Radio 4 persuasion. And yet, presented with a situation where only one can prevail, when the Princess (Joanna Lumley) sides in favour of La Bête (T4 in my analogy), your heart cries ‘No!’. In my opinion the craft of theatre is something to be preserved and something we should strive to continue, but we should not punish ourselves too much for revelling in the odd bit of fun.

Ironically, however, it is not the literary craft of the script that makes this play; it is the performances. Though I am rarely starstruck, on finding myself squeezing behind Mark Rylance on the pavement afterwards I had to strongly resist the urge to stroke him. Joanna Lumley (and excuse me for this) was absolutely fabulous, I am still getting over seeing David Hyde Pierce in the flesh, and everyone else was bloody marvellous as well. The chorus injected life into the second half making you not only feel like you’d had an interval (there wasn’t one) but that you’d had a gin and tonic at it.

Much of the negative press La Bête has received compares it to the original 1992 performance. Being born only a year before I do not have it as a reference point.  If it was as much better as The Daily Mail claim then I really wish I’d seen it. Lacking a time machine however I am happy to settle for this production. Very enjoyable. Get thee to the West End.