By Rachel Halliburton Posted: Tue Jun 29 2010
'La Bête' is set up to be one of the West End's summer hits. Rachel Halliburton talks to its writer David Hirson, and cast memebers Joanna Lumley, David Hyde Pierce and Mark Rylance
As George Osborne's age of austerity looms over the UK like a raincloud, those seeking a bit of consolatory sunshine should head to the Comedy Theatre. There a rather strange little play written in iambic pentameters is threatening to be the hit of the summer. 'La Bête' is set in the Languedoc and takes its comic tone from Molière, but in fact didn't land on the page till more than three centuries after his death when it sprang from the mind of a young New York playwright called David Hirson. Broadway was unkind to it: it closed after 25 performances, but its producers had enough faith in 'La Bête' to bring it to London where its subsequent critical and commercial success won it the 1992 Olivier Award for Best Comedy.
The producers' expectations for this latest revival can be gauged from one glance at the cast list. Amid the cut and thrust of London's entertainment economy, 'La Bête' has pulled in three prizefighters: Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, and Joanna Lumley. Only the dead can have failed to hear this year's raves about Rylance's swaggeringly anarchic turn as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron in 'Jerusalem'; as Niles in 'Frasier', Hyde Pierce's beautifully timed nervous tics and anally retentive melancholy won him thousands of devotees on both sides of the Atlantic; and between her Patsy beehive and the Gurkhas, Lumley has eclipsed the Queen as a national treasure. True, there's no such thing as a guaranteed hit in theatre (the ghost of Arthur Miller's 'Resurrection Blues' looms large over any such complacent predictions) but consider too that the director is Matthew 'Boeing Boeing' Warchus, and forecasts of a theatrical warm front heading in the direction of Panton Street don't seem too far-fetched.
So what exactly has this play done to merit such a cast at this particular point in time? Is it a seering satire on financial corruption that resonates profoundly with our age? Er, no. Is it a timeless comedy about relationships that simultaneously pinpoints the absurdity of the modern condition? Um, not quite. So what is it? 'It's a wild child,' ventures Hirson when we have lunch together early in the rehearsal process, 'it's this living thing, and some people are angered by it, and some people love it. Even when it failed when it was first put on in New York, there were many people who loved it passionately. I think some people reacted against it because there's no model for this kind of thing - it's a very strange play, it's written in rhyme, and back then I was a first-time playwright. I don't think it was to do with what the play said because - well, who knows what it said? The more I've aged, the more I think I had a false sense then of what the play was.'
What the play definitely is about - in narrative terms - is a princess (played by Lumley, in earlier versions of the play the character was a prince) who's getting bored with the idealistic pretensions of her resident playwright Elomire (Hyde Pierce). So she introduces to Elomire's troupe a street performer, Valère (Rylance), a monstrous buffoon whose vanity blinds him to others' sensibilities, any notion of courtesy and his own spectacular lack of talent. While Elomire recoils at the pong of Valère's pretensions, the princess sees him as a necessary breath of fresh air. The result is a highly entertaining verbal duel awash with malapropisms, preposterous metaphors and bathos which ends up sending one of the great pretenders out into the cold.
Broadbrush comedy abounds: and after watching his transformation as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, it's enjoyable to imagine how Rylance will metamorphose for the bullfrog puffings of Valère. Yet there's an extraordinary precision to this comedy too which catches in your mind: and talking to Hirson it's striking that the perfectionist rather than the comedian predominates. A graduate of Yale and Oxford, he's an accomplished pianist whose talent for translation at university led him to do a well-received translation of the Scarlatti opera 'Gli equivoci nel sembiante'. Its success sowed the seeds of suspicion that writing drama in rhyme might be his thing. At the end of the interview, he tells me a very funny story about how - as a graduate student at Oxford - he passed out at his desk after spending the whole night writing a theatre review for the TLS, and responded when a friend woke him up by sitting up and shouting, 'What more do they want of me?' The tale contributes to the picture of a man who painstakingly refines whatever he works on till it meets his complete satisfaction. Which is probably why, beneath 'La Bête's more obvious laughs, it's possible to discern an intricate web of observations about the delusions, vanities and compromised principles that shape all of our lives daily - dangerous truths that allow the play to haunt you, not least as you wonder whether it's Valère or Elomire who's the greatest fool.
Just before the play transfers from the rehearsal studios to the Comedy Theatre, I go to meet Hyde Pierce, Lumley, and Rylance during their lunchbreak. I'm interested to know if the play is affecting them as strongly as their distinctive styles will inevitably affect the play. Hyde Pierce - salt-and-pepper bearded and politely self-contained - displays a pincer-tight intelligence in his observations: 'I've been surprised at how much it's affected me away from rehearsals. I'm not sleeping - and not just the usual, “Oh, we're having an audience on Saturday” - not sleeping. It's going deeper, which is good. Matthew [Warchus] hoped there would be disturbing elements for an audience, and I think we're tampering with those.'
Rylance sits there smiling, before lobbing a small bomb into the conversation. 'It's a little like McDonald's moving into your town.' Hyde Pierce and Lumley flash amused, raised-eyebrow glances at him, evidently well used to his tangential takes. Valère is like McDonald's? 'Absolutely,' he replies in his slightly sing-song voice, 'I'm McDonald's. It's about the process of all our towns becoming homogenised, a transformation of culture.'
Lumley - slayer of dragons, terror of Gordon Brown and, according to an article in the Independent, absolutely unflappable even when a man pulled out a gun in the pub where the interview was taking place - displays no Boadicea-style airs and graces. Here she's one of the gang: 'I do the Coward warm-up,' she says when talking about the pace at which she has to deliver her lines.
'The Coward warm-up, or the cowardly warm-up?' interjects Rylance.
But beneath the joking it quickly becomes clear that another hidden surprise in this deceptively frivolous play is the huge demand it's placing on the actors' bodies. 'I've worked in musicals the past few years, and I'm so glad, because I learned things you need doing a play like this,' declares Hyde Pierce. 'You can't miss a syllable,' adds Lumley, 'it's like music, which means you can tell when it goes wrong… which of course, it doesn't.'
In the play Valère may be the fool but in rehearsals, brought to life by Rylance, it's obvious he's snared everyone's imagination. Lumley looks at him and smiles. 'It's funny to see this supple-looking boy when you've seen him playing Rooster, who was a barrel-chested monster.' Hyde Pierce concurs, 'I can say from working with Mark that what's astonishing about his performance is that it comes out of the seams. You watch it evolve from what happens in the moment, and that sometimes transforms him physically, it's amazing…'
Rylance sits there, lightly amused, as if they are talking about someone other than him. As indeed they might be: the way he transforms himself between roles - from the daintier-than-thou Olivia in his celebrated 'Twelfth Night', to the hollering hunk of humanity that was Rooster - implies that he is not just one person, but like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. 'I'm a pretty mundane person really,' he says eventually. 'I just like to play: when I'm in a playful mode I'm more open to inspiration. I do plan things sometimes, but then they're a bit crap.' I'm not a betting woman, but it seems unlikely the word 'crap' is going to feature strongly when they eventually let the critics in
Here's the link to the original article: Exlusive: the stars of La Bête