It is testament to Mark Rylance’s extraordinary ability that he makes every role seem as though it was written for him. The role of Johnny Byron in Jerusalem, the hit of last year, was written for him; but the role of Valere in David Hirson’s 1991 verse comedy La Bête, was not.
Yet from the moment Rylance struts onto the stage in this Matthew Warchus production at the Comedy theatre, clutching a decanter of wine and spewing pieces of banana from his mouth, the feathers of his wide-brimmed hat protruding like a proud peacock, the actor makes the role his own.
Valere is a pain in the butt. The setting is 17th century France, and Valere, a grubby street entertainer who lives for the sound of his own voice and the applause of the crowd, has been ordered by the Princess to team up with her royal troupe of actors, led by Elomire, a high-minded, snobby dramatist. Following dinner, the two meet up in the court’s library – impressively realised by designer Mark Thompson with floor to ceiling bookshelves – to discuss their forced collaboration.
But Elomire can’t stand Valere with his self-aggrandising manner, his uncouth ways and his ability to talk without taking a breath for an interminable amount of time. Valere is an extraordinary creation, and who knows how long it took Rylance to learn the rapidly-spoken monologue that goes on for at least half an hour. His bouts of memory loss, his non-sequiturs and his made-up words have the audience in hysterics, and Rylance expertly extracts every ounce of comedy from the character.
You feel Elomire’s pain. Though Valere allows him to say nothing during his remarkable floor show, David Hyde Pierce need only raise an eyebrow, set his jaw or wordlessly gesture to his friend Bejart to express the extent of Elomire’s blood pressure-raising frustration. At one point he goes into the other room to hit his head against the wall. At times I felt like it too.
The raucous comedy in Hirson’s play comes not only from this clash of characters, but also from his cleverly constructed rhyming couplets, which allow one character to finish another’s sentence with a rhyme, perfectly delivered by the cast in sometimes breathtakingly fast repartee.
Joanna Lumley is given the thankless task of matching up to her co-stars, but she does so with confidence, showing the capricious, slightly psychotic nature of the Princess that at times owes more than a little to Blackadder’s Queenie.
She wants Valere and Elomire to be ‘spiritual brothers’. Nothing could be further from reality. Not only are the characters opposites in personality, but they represent different ideals. This is a battle between high art and entertainment and it is not going to be solved easily given the egos involved. To whom the title of ‘beast’ refers to suddenly becomes less clear cut.
But the title of King of the stage remains Valere’s. He cannot be suppressed regardless of what is thrown at him and in this he must be admired. Though the Anglo-American cast – including Greta Lee’s bizarre maid and Stephen Ouimette’s Bejart – do their best with their roles, centre stage is left to Mark Rylance, whose Valere could not be anywhere else.