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Review Round-up: Has Bete Got Better with Age?

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One of this summer’s most anticipated offerings, Matthew Warchus’ starry revival of David Hirson’s Moliere-inspired 1991 comedy La Bete opened last night (7 July 2010, previews from 26 June) at the West End\'s Comedy Theatre, where it continues until 4 September 2010 prior to an immediate Broadway transfer.

The play is billed as “a comic tour de force” and centres on Elomire (Frasier\'s David Hyde Pierce), a high-minded classical dramatist who loves only the theatre, and Valere (Mark Rylance), a low-brow street clown who loves only himself. When the fickle princess (Joanna Lumley) decides she’s grown weary of Elomire’s royal theatre troupe, he and Valere are left fighting for survival as art squares off with ego in a literary showdown for the ages.

Could this art live up to the expectations raised by such a luminous company and creative team?

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “Maybe the anticipation of seeing Mark Rylance, Joanna Lumley and David Hyde Pierce together on one stage in American playwright David Hirson’s La Bete, a theatrical comedy of rhyming couplets set in the 17th-century court of Languedoc, was too much… 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 … 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.\"
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “I\'ll say this much: David Hirson\'s piece of Broadway-originating, pastiche Molière seems less smugly self-admiring than it did on its first appearance in 1992 … David Hyde Pierce is very good at conveying Elomire\'s volcanic rage as his booklined study is colonised by Valere. But, although he captures Elomire\'s increasing Alceste-like isolation, he is given insufficient support by Hirson\'s text in enriching the character. I have no complaints, however, about Joanna Lumley\'s spoilt brat of a patron, who has undergone a gender-change since the original production, nor about Stephen Ouimette as Elomire\'s sidekick … Warchus\' production is infinitely better balanced than the original. He allows us to see that Valere\'s work has a crude vigour, and that the principled Elomire, who argues that \'good verse conceals its artifice ideally\', is dogmatic. But, even if there is now a hint of dialectical debate, Hirson\'s play still contains two fundamental flaws. We actually get to see Valere\'s lowbrow art, whereas Elomire\'s credentials as a serious artist have to be taken on trust. Valere himself, set up as a boorish idiot, is also miraculously allowed to turn into an articulate spokesman who impresses the patron by talk of \'the slipping standards of our shallow culture\'.”
  • Libby Purves in The Times (five stars) - “We\'ve waited for this one, in wondering hope … It\'s a tough gig, raising that much expectation, and it\'s no common play … it defies categorisation. You are forced to laugh all through and then confront a bleak unresolved ending to the central question … Rylance, of course, shines. Who else could hold us, hysterical yet horrified, for the first half of David Hirson\'s headlong play as he preens and digresses, a compulsive deluded entertainer rebuilding the very language … At one stage, standing on the table, he declares \'God love the critics! Bless their picky hearts!\' Much nervous laughter in the stalls. But why pick? It\'s grown-up panto, it\'s clever, it\'s quite deep, it could not be better done. You may hate it, but you\'ll never see anything quite like it again.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) –“This is a play which begins brilliantly only to turn dismally flat as it runs out of comic invention and momentum. The first 35 minutes are blissfully funny as Rylance comes on as the pretentious street entertainer and delivers an extraordinarily long monologue, extolling his own genius, with occasional moments of false modesty, while revealing himself to be an egregious ass … This is high definition comic acting of an exceptional order, bursting with grotesque detail and energy, while also proving unexpectedly endearing. Somehow even Rylance\'s knees seem both hilariously funny and strangely touching. But after that it is downhill all the way as the play turns into a more serious debate about art, ethics and the power of patrons … Initially promising, it becomes so self-regarding and ultimately arid that our initially joyous laughter dies in the throat.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “\'This is turning out to be my night,\' says Mark Rylance’s character in this revival of David Hirson’s 1991 play, but in truth it’s Rylance’s night from the very start … The play doesn’t sustain its initial bravura, though, and for all the inventiveness of Matthew Warchus’ production, it feels repetitious. The writing is in places technically remarkable, yet not genuinely dramatic. Elomire’s hostility to Valere is numbingly reiterated. The intervention of the Princess, a punk version of Miss Havisham, is frankly tedious, and the role seems wrong for Joanna Lumley. Hyde Pierce is dry and clipped as Elomire, and there’s a nice turn by Stephen Ouimette as his sidekick, but this is Rylance’s show. That makes its development into a battle of ideas, in its rather stodgy second half, disappointing.”
  • - Theo Bosanquet & Ellie Pullen


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