Written in 1991, Peter Filichia’s comedy is a satire on, and tribute to, theatre in the age of Molière.
A troupe of actors, led by the purist Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), is desperate to retain the royal patronage of Joanna Lumley’s Princess. So when she insists that they admit the vulgar populist Valere (Mark Rylance) into their midst, the company is torn between principle and security.
The undoubted highlight of the production is Rylance’s performance. From the minute he staggers onstage, the worse for the wear after over indulging at a royal banquet, it becomes Rylance’s show. Valere’s opening monologue lasts for a good 25 minutes. It starts off funny, quickly becomes hilarious — but then becomes infuriating. At which point it starts to become all the funnier, because every point at which we think he is drawing to an end, he starts up again. Throughout, Hyde Pierce’s role is reduced to dumb reaction: but it’s the role that ten years on Frasier has shown he was more than capable of.
It’s not just the duration of the monologue that creats such mirth, though. The content — poking fun at actors, at critics, at pretension in general — takes profusive aim and generally hits every target.
In truth, once that monologue does draw to a close, the quality of the play dips substantially, becoming a poor imitation rather than the pastiche it wants to be. It never quite regains the heights of that monologue, and by the time the closing curtain comes there’s much more a feeling of relief than there should be.