La Bête, Comedy Theatre

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.

Jerusalem, Apollo Theatre

Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is a master storyteller, charismatic and funny. We are as much in his thrall as some of the local villagers, although they are more there for the drugs he deals than the tales he weaves of giants and babies born dressed, speaking and walking.

As the local council makes efforts to evict him after complaints by residents of the encroaching estate, Mark Rylance is a primal force as Byron. A drink-sodden, drug-addled metaphor of an England which is still in contact with its pre-Christian spiritual mythology, but which is constantly being eroded by external forces, Jez Butterworth has created one of modern theatre’s most mesmeric characters.

Rylance’s towering performance does not overshadow the rest of the large ensemble, however. Byron’s hangers-on and fair weather friends, some of whom live on the estate threatening his way of life and who have signed the petition calling for his eviction, are drawn with a deft stroke of the comic pen. While Mackenzie Crook and Alan David provide the biggest laughs, Tom Brooke’s wide-eyed would-be emigré imbues the comedy scenes with a sense of realism, and the serious ones with a sense of absurdity, that leavens the whole production.

As with last year’s staging at the Royal Court, Ultz’s set design, with its towering elm trees, battered furniture and implausibly American caravan, is another character, enriching the atmosphere of Butterworth’s glorious script. And as the comedy falls away at the close of the third act, surrendering to brutal violence and a call to awaken the country’s long forgotten forces, one is left in no doubt that this a superb piece of theatre.

Apollo, London, February 10-April 24
Author: Jez Butterworth
Director: Ian Rickson
Producers: Sonia Friedman Productions, Royal Court Theatre Productions and Old Vic Productions
Cast includes: Mark Rylance, Mackenzie Crook, Alan David, Tom Brooke, Gerard Horan, Danny Kirrane
Running time: 3hrs 10mins

* Reviewed for The Stage