Last night a friend and I caught La Bete, David Hirson’s 1991 comedy set in 17th century France, at the Comedy Theatre. Through some diligent work on my friend’s part we managed to get balcony seats for £12, through Student Beans.
La Bete is well worth watching, but it baffles me why Hirson decided to write it. I assume that he already had his cast in mind – in which case he should just have written a one-man show for Mark Rylance. If, however, he wrote it without Rylance in mind, then he struck gold, for without him this play would be a sure flop: his relentless energy and perfectly timed humour make his performance of Valere a real tour de force. Although the construction of Valere as a character is stand-alone funny, the rest of the plot is at best thin and at worst infuriatingly unnecessary. Without such a totally convincing performer in the main role this 100 minute play might seem torturously long. The strongly ironic fabric of the show makes you wonder how self-aware Hirson was when penning a play which centres around the flourishing of mediocrity.
I have borne a resentment towards the West End for some time now: for its elitist ticket pricing, for its lack of young people’s schemes, and for its lionising of celebrities for commercial gain. Unfortunately La Bete and my experience of the Comedy Theatre last night did not help to dispel these preconceptions. Waiting at the stage door post-show Mark Rylance, the indisputable engine of the performance, very nearly slipped away unnoticed amidst the hauds of anticipatory Lumley fans. This is not to condemn Joanna Lumley: a fantastic actress, she brought colour and vivacity to a terrible part. It did, though, prove that talent and particular achievement are not recognised as they should be. On this occasion household name obscures the true star of the night.