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La Bête - Comedy Theatre (review)

The Princess (Joanna Lumley), Valere (Mark Rylance) and Elomire (David Hyde Pierce). Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

DAVID Hirson’s so-called modern comedy of classical insanity, La Bête, premiered on Broadway in 1991 but failed to capture the imagination of the American theatregoing public. However, the subsequent West End production was a critical and commercial success and won the 1992 Olivier Award for Best Comedy.

Now Matthew Warchus’ revival has opened at the Comedy Theatre and it boasts a stellar cast – David Hyde Pierce, aka Frasier‘s Dr Niles Crane, as Elomire; Joanna Lumley, loved as much for her numerous TV roles as for her unwavering support for the Gurkhas, as The Princess (The Prince in the original); and Mark Rylance, considered by many to be the greatest British stage actor since Sir Laurence Olivier, as Valere.

Written entirely in rhyming couplets and inspired by the work of Moliere (The Misanthrope in particular springs to mind), La Bête is set in 17th century France, where Elomire, a high-minded classical dramatist and head of the royal theatre troupe, is pitted against Valere, a low-brow street clown who loves only himself, when The Princess decides the latter should join the troupe.

Rylance, as always, is superb – his 30 minute or so monologue a veritable tour de force. In his hands Valere becomes the titular La Bête though whether a fool or a beast is for you to decide. I went for the latter – a fool can be forgiven because he knows no better, but a beast is an entirely different matter. And believe me, by the time the duel of words had played out to its bitter end (all one hour 45 minutes without a break), I was in no mood to forgive.

Besides, this egotistical but pathetic excuse for a human being, whose social graces are non-existent – he burps, farts, spits out partially chewed food and even relieves himself in public – stoops to new depths when he censures Bejart (played for the most part with wonderfully telling facial expressions by Stephen Ouimette) for his deformity – a dowager’s hump, and here think Olivier’s Richard III. Not Valere’s fault, I know, but to highlight a disfigurement of any kind just for laughs is wrong and, I fear, a serious mistake on Hirson’s part.

There are however moments of pure genius (others somewhat less so) and at times La Bête is very funny. But equally, there are moments that are toe-curlingly embarrassing and dare I say it, even distinctly puerile – as in the acting out of Valere’s play – but maybe that’s the whole idea.

David Hyde Pierce delivers, albeit in measured doses, as the idealist in an imperfect world and his Elomire is to La Bête what Alceste is to The Misanthrope (Elomire, incidentally, is an anagram of Moliere). And Joanna Lumley, sporting a flowing red wig and looking far younger than her years (at least from where I was sitting), makes a convincingly fickle though not particularly likeable princess.

The final word must go to Mark Thompson’s wonderful set – a library with floor to ceiling shelves of books.

If I’m honest, La Bête isn’t really to my taste but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Last night’s performance (July 8, 2010) was well received by the audience although not so well that it received a standing ovation. And that I think, speaks volumes.

La Bête Photo Gallery

Read more about the cast and creative team