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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.