La Bête @ Comedy Theatre

They are theatrical plasticine, pure expression of character from their teeth to their trochees.

I was in need of a giggle.

Sure, Michael Attenborough’s production of Through A Glass Darkly at the Almeida had its moments of bleak, Bergmanesque humour: sad, saline little drops of drollery about the half-vulnerable, half-ruthless self-centredness of us all. Lol.

And yes, Moira Buffini’s new Greek-myth-mashup at the National, Welcome to Thebes, did draw some half-laughs, satirising the hubris and naivity of modern politics and warmongering through Theseus, Eurydice, Antigone, Tiresias and that whole old blind, murderous, gender-bending, motherfucking crew. Fine acting from the likes of David Harewood and Nikki Amuka-Bird teased genuine wit from the rather plodding parallels, but the depressing reality of its underlying truths (not to mention the depressing inevitability of thousands of future GCSE students drawing listless penises in the margins of their syllabus-enforced copies of the play) put a bit of a dampener on the fun.

So it was with the full force of my repressed jollity that I squashed myself into a stalls seat for La Bête, David Hirson‘s Olivier-winning, clever-clever chamber piece currently directed by Matthew Warchus in the West End.

Photo by Manuel Harlan

We’re not talking polite theatre chortling here. We’re talking rocking belly-booms to the extent that the man in front of me turned round and snapped at me for kicking his seat. He probably thought he was at the National.

Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce (surely every intellectual fag hag’s fantasy sandwich) share an extraordinarily direct connection between their words and their bodies. The high art vs popular entertainment/asceticism vs indulgence argument of the play, symbolised by the struggles of haughty royal playwright Elomire (Niles) to keep the verbally and corporeally effluent populist hack Valere (Rooster) out of his troupe, is predictable and dull: you do not go to La Bête to seriously consider this eternal and eternally dull dichotomy, and in fact you’re already rather fed up of it after the first quarter of an hour.

No, what you go to see is them. Those two. The rhythm, precision and sheer extremity of their physical and linguistic slapstick is blinding. Their faces are poems. Their legs are exclamation marks. Their fingers are consonants, their eyebrows vowels. Beside them, the mighty Jo Lum somewhat pales in the role of Elomire’s autocratic and aristocratic patroness, with her funny but contrived imitation of Blackadder’s Queenie. Rylance and Hyde Pierce make everyone around them seem so… brittle. They are theatrical plasticine, pure expression of character from their teeth to their trochees.

The play is not much more than a vehicle, but these are two rally racers you’ll want to watch to the bitter, crash-and-burning end.

Highly recommended for total seratonin OD; even better with a stiff G&T and an irate pensioner at your knees.

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