Theatre review: La Bete

Posted on: 13 July 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews American playwright David Hirson’s 1991 pastiche of a 17th century Moliere play La Bete at the Comedy Theatre.

The theme of high culture versus populism and the vision of the artist achieves a fresh lease of life in American playwright David Hirson’s 1991 pastiche of a 17th century Moliere play La Bete which is revived in a wonderfully witty new production directed by Matthew Warchus at the Comedy Theatre.

The setting is a library in a French court, the year 1654. When Princess Conti invites buffoonish street clown Valere to inject some bawdy fun and mischief into her staid, acting troupe, she anticipates an exciting creative combination. But the troupe’s leader, Elomire, is an elitist and fervent lover of highbrow theatre and is incenses that the court ensemble should admit the scandalously boorish entertainer Valere, with whom he clashes. With Elomire’s pride and the troupe’s livelihood on the line, the company is duty-bound not only to accept the outrageous troubadour, but to perform one of his ridiculous plays, an event that has dramatic consequences for them all.

Written in rhyming couplets with a dazzlingly inventive use of language, this is a play about art, ethics and the power of patrons that is impossible to categorise but which is both wildly hilarious and deeply thought-provoking. One of the central issues in the play is the position of the artist in the marketplace. Should playwrights, novelists, poets, film makers, painters and composers only trust their own vision in determining the worth of what they produce? Or do they have a responsibility both to their patrons which today are theatres, art galleries, publishing houses, and to the paying public at large? And how can we measure the lasting value of a work of art when only posterity can make that judgement? In this play it is the protagonist, Valere, the man with the populist touch, who defends apparently paradoxically, the right of the artist to be the sole arbiter of the merit of the work.

Director Matthew Warchus draws another superb performance from Mark Rylance as Valere, the ‘la bete’ of the title, who with his terrible teeth and wig, quip about amnesia, aversion to acidic vinaigrette, presents a figure who is ludicrous from head to toe but is a joy to watch, and engages us fully. In particular his opening speech which lasts for about half an hour, is laced with good jokes and allows him to exhibit his full range of skills and charms, is a real tour de force. Lending fine support is David Hyde Pierce as the angry Elomire and Joanna Lumley as a red-haired, punkish princess.

An unconventional but richly rewarding evening in the theatre.

By Laurence Green

Where: Comedy Theatre

When: plays until 4 September 2010

Box Office: 0844 871 7622

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