by David Hirson
Comedy Theatre, London
4th August 2010
with Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley
Directed by Matthew Warchus
For years I bought a couple or three CDs a week, that’s 150 plus a year. Why? I was in search of that sublime moment that great popular music gives you, that song you can’t stop playing for days, the one you marvel at. You have to listen to that many to find the songs that have total magic.
With the theatre, I’ll go to twenty plays a year, hoping for that magic theatrical moment to come just once. That Peter Brooks A Midsummer Nights Dream theatrical experience. Like London buses, they come in pairs, because I’ve seen two in a year, both in verse, and both related to 17th century France, one Molière, the other pastiche Molière and both in the Comedy Theatre in Panton Street.
The first was Martin Crimp’s modern adaptation of The Misanthrope, with Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers) and Keira Knightley, which was transferred from 17th century France to a modern hotel.
The second was La Bête, in costume and set in 1690s France. It’s a revival of a play first produced in 1991. Like most, I bought tickets to see David Hyde Pierce (or Niles in Frasier) and came away stunned by the performance of Mark Rylance, simply one of the greatest (and in a theatrical sense “biggest”) stage performances I’ve ever seen. The New Statesman review said:
(Rylance) has shown himself to be, by some distance, our best stage actor. He is to Simon Russell Beale what Ian McKellen was to Antony Sher in the 1980s, and Olivier to Gielgud and Richardson in the 1960s
The story takes place in a theatrical troupe, beholden for their living to their patron, “The Princess” (Joanna Lumley). Hyde Pierce plays Elomire, the writer and manager of the company. Elomire is a serious artist. Elomire is an anagram of Molière too.
The set is a jam-packed library of leather bound volumes disappearing into the sky. Set and costumes are first class, though we wondered why Joanna Lumley’s princess was wearing a gold open-fronted gown, long underpants but no skirt.
The princess, hoping to increase the public appeal of the troupe has decreed that they employ a “star”, Valere (Mark Rylance). Valere does his one-man shows across France and is hugely popular LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) stuff. In music terms it’s early 70s, and Slade’s Noddy Holder (but dressed like Slade’s Dave Hill with the same teeth) is being foisted on Genesis or King Crimson as their new lead singer. Valere is a monster, a non-stop babbler and egocentric. His arrival a few minutes into the action launches a near thirty-minute verse monologue which is the funniest thing I’ve seen on stage. It’s hugely boosted by Hyde Pierce’s reactions, furious and unable to get a word in edgeways, doing the best “reactive acting” performance too, ably assisted by Stephen Ouimtte as Bejart, another member of the company.
Rylance’s physical acting, spitting, farting, burping meatily, defecating while talking non-stop through the open door to the privy, is tears down your cheeks stuff. He comes on like a late 17th century strolling actor interpreted as a Deadhead, (i.e. a blown-away follower of the Grateful Dead). Rylance, who’s English, adopts a generic American accent, to match the other actors (and it’s on its way to Broadway). Rylance went to school in the USA and switched seamlessly. Only Lumley is English accented. The Deadhead bit comes in his frequent lapses of memory too, as when he announces that he can recite the entire Pentateuch from memory, and gets as far as “In the beginning …” then unable to remember any more starts babbling in what he imagines might be Hebrew.
Bejart’s hunchback is the target of Rylance’s patter, and so carefully is the play staged that we never see it or are aware of it until Valere mentions it, two thirds in to his monologue. The blocking is meticulous throughout.
As most reviews have mentioned, it’s impossible for the second part of the play to keep up with the brilliance of the first. It involves a demonstration by Valere of scenes from his own plays, A Death of A Clown followed by Two Boys From Cadiz in which he’s joined by Elomire’s company. The Princess had seen The Death of A Clown in the marketplace and insists that Valere re-enacts the ending. The point of A Death of A Clown he announces after the Princess loathes it on her second viewing is that it’s brilliantly designed to get worse the more you see it. Two Boys From Cadiz has him joined by the company, and he begins by apparently playing Spanish guitar pieces in Hendrix style including playing with his teeth. It’s very funny, but as the play-within-a play it needed some extra circus-like theatrical moment. It’s supposed to be awful, and of crude popular appeal, but an extra LCD bit would have helped. There’s a point in Leonard Cohen concerts where The Webb Sisters execute a perfect cartwheel during the song. It was something physical (and astonishing) like that, from one of the other actors perhaps. But maybe it would have destroyed the point, where the actors happily desert Elomire’s artistic vision for the popular appeal of absolute crap.
All in all, it was that rare five-star theatrical experience.
MARK RYLANCE ON THIS BLOG:
Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
Farinelli & The King, by Claire Van Kampen, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
Richard III – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Richard III
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Olivia
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, West End
La Bête by David Hirson, West End, 2010