For what seemed, on its London premiere in 1992, to be a gorgeously explosive and unexpected treat – Alan Cumming played the Rylance role of a bumptious vaudevillian actor, Valère – now appears trite and over-extended, even at a playing time of just over 100 minutes.
We get the point very early on: a decadent court theatre needs a shot in the arm. The argument is put forward in an astonishing tour de force by Rylance, spitting, burping and farting through his headlong monologue for well over half an hour.
But once the parameters of the play are set, and Joanna Lumley’s subdued but fickle princess – transformed from a flouncing, much funnier prince played by Timothy Walker in the Cumming version – presides over the contest between Valère and the wiped-out dramatist, the evening becomes repetitive and, dare one say it, even rather boring.
The dramatist, Elomire, an anagram of Molière, is portrayed by David Hyde Pierce as a distinctly reticent, and subtly inflected, writer first of all trapped in his lair – the library design of Mark Thompson, breathtakingly well lit by Hugh Vanstone, is an extravagant marvel – and then compelled to face the truth of his shortcomings by this intrusive, comic vandal.
The situation reflects the real one of Molière touring the southern provinces in 1654 with a motley crew including the well-known Béjart family, here represented by Stephen Ouimette and Sally Wingert; they, and a few others including Liza Sadovy as Catherine De Brie and Robert Lonsdale as Rene Du Parc, are seen in a painterly representation of a celebratory banquet at the start and as a well sculptured little crowd towards the end.
In a curious way, though, the excellence of Matthew Warchus’ production exposes the emptiness at the heart of the piece, which never really lives up to its own billing as a heated debate about the place of art, integrity and popular passion in the commercial theatre. It’s a shadowy gloss on several Molière plays, notably The Misanthrope, which, despite all its cleverness and facility of elasticated doggerel, remains just that: an insubstantial shadow and a theatrical sleight-of-hand.