Beauty and the beast

La Bête is skewed by the brilliance of Mark Rylance

David Hirson's La Bête opens this week at the Comedy Theatre, with a fantasy line-up of Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley. Set in 17th-century France, it is written entirely in rhyming couplets, and concerns the clash between Elomire, high-minded playwright and cultural aesthete, and Valere, a self-aggrandising street clown, as they vie for the patronage of "the Princess".

Elomire is a messed up Molière more than just orthographically, since the French dramatist enjoyed broad comedy with the best of them. Pierce is already at an advantage on the aesthete front, having spent nine years playing one in Frasier. Little is required of him other than to look alternately disgusted and enraged, enraged and disgusted, since he stands as monochrome foil only to the garrulous effusions of Valere. Erupting into Elomire's library, a pirate to Pierce's Puritan, Rylance starts by delivering Valere's breathtaking forty-minute safari round Europe and his ego. Posturing as Hamlet, skull in hand, he farts, belches, swears, spits, drinks, even shits in public (tearing up Elomire's manuscript to wipe his fundament).

He endlessly glosses his activities ("I'm totally unconscious now!"), invents new words to offend Elomire's Académie Française sensibilities, and misuses old ones. (His best malapropism is "vagina" for Regina). Later in the show, Rylance scales the bookcases, crouched high on the wall like a malevolent, buck-toothed Arlequin. Pierce can only watch as this star pulls everything into his orbit. At one point he goes to punch him but his sidekick Bejart (Stephen Oimette) heads him off with a strip-the-willow caper. In terms of physicality, it's the Morris men taking on Nijinsky.

It is the Princess's idea to yoke together the exponents of high and low art. Having enjoyed Valere's "Death of the Clown" so much, she thinks he will enliven Elomire's worthy but dull troupe. La Lumley herself is a perfect gravelly blend of the posh and the coarse. She's strawberries and cream polished off with a couple of Silk Cut. But in truth there's not much for Lumley to unpack her acting talents for: the nameless Princess is as much of a cipher as Lewis Carroll's Queen; a representation of arbitrary caprice. She just has to look spiky and shout a bit. Director Matthew Warchus states his desire to "make popular things artistic and the artistic popular", which sounds pretty much like the Princess's manifesto.

I couldn't help suspecting that La Bête has been hoisted by its own petard. Certainly Elomire's worry that the clown will dominate his troupe's work seems to be a fair critique of the way the play is skewed by Rylance's brilliance. In fact the play is self-referential to the point of self-regard, with the whole business of theatre being put under scrutiny - actors, critics, playwrights and of course opinion-formers, in the guise of the Princess and her pursuit of shiny new things. Just as in Valere's Volta - "read France" - in Hirson's France we must of course read contemporary New York slash London. After all, despite the Languedoc setting, everyone, saving her Maj, is decidedly American. By implication, we too are in the mix, and perhaps being congratulated for choosing a smart play in iambic pentameter over America's Next Top Model. The defence of the integrity of art is one of those rallying cries that is deeply uncontroversial but gives everyone a righteous glow nonetheless, like being anti-BNP.

Only one of the characters is removed from the discourse about theatre, and that's because she doesn't speak. For obscure reasons, Elomire's servant Dorine (Greta Lee) communicates in one-word code and elaborate mime. Warchus leaves us with a beautiful image at the end of the show, when the verbal gives way to the painterly, and Dorine mutely watches the flight of her master, lit like a Vermeer subject.

She is welcome relief from this talking shop, as La Bête is a wordy war, and not much actually happens. We only hear of Elomire's art. Valere's entertaining play-within-a play, The Parable of Two Boys From Cadiz, is the only event of any note, but the mise en abîme structure is a parlous one: the presentation of a deliberately bad play is fraught with the dangers of exposing the host play's flaws. To my ears, its verse is simply not up to much, and the whole course of a speech can seem determined by the discovery of a happy rhyme: La Bête is not nearly as clever and captivating as it thinks it is. The play may aspire to the high-minded, but, for sure, the devil Rylance has all the best tunes.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.