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.

The Tolkien Trust
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Beren and Lúthien: Love, war and Tolkien’s lost tales

Expanded and augmented version of tale which first appeared in Silmarillion mirrors Tolkien's own relationship with wife Edith.

In a woodland glade white with flowers, a young woman danced for her soldier husband. It seems a vision from a lost world, and for that Somme veteran in 1917 it was: a glimpse of joy as if sorrow, sickness and horror had never been. For Second Lieutenant J R R Tolkien the dance in the glade inspired a fairy tale, written that same summer in hospital, after a relapse of Somme trench fever. To call it a difficult birth would be the understatement of a century: it has taken 100 years for the story of Beren and Lúthien to become a book in its own right.

Of the nine years since Tolkien and Edith had met as fellow lodgers (and orphans), three had been spent under a communication ban imposed by his guardian. Reunited after Tolkien turned 21, they had married just weeks before he was sent to the trenches. There for four months with the Lancashire Fusiliers, mostly as a battalion signals officer, he repeatedly witnessed the carnage that he later called simply “animal horror”. He also lost many friends, including two of his dearest. Part exorcism, The Book of Lost Tales, begun when he got back to England, was his first attempt at recounting a mythological war over three “holy jewels” called the Silmarils – the multi-threaded epic he later named The Silmarillion.

Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German “Rapunzel”. Tolkien’s big idea was that his “Lost Tales” were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.

That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.

Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early “Lost Tales” plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.

Christopher follows the thread beyond the end of the story proper to show how the lovers’ quest leads to later redemption and victory in the war against Morgoth. He discusses how their fates fit in with the concepts of mortality and immortality central to the whole “legendarium”. Finally, he adds a sequence from a rewriting of The Lay of Leithian begun with redoubled power after The Lord of the Rings, but again abandoned. So this is also a memorial to a story that might have been.

There is much to relish, even for those who have read The Silmarillion. Of all the 1916-19 “Lost Tales”, this one changed most. The early version, doubtless written for Edith, is a rollicking fairy tale crossed with a kind of “Just So Story” about why cats fear dogs; yet in its latter stages it steps up several gears and attains a mythic power. The verse Leithian is in this higher gear all along, setting the tone for The Silmarillion. Germanic saga rises to the surface, and so do war memories:

. . . the mighty field . . . turned to dust,

to drifting sand and yellow rust,

to thirsty dunes where many bones

lay broken among barren stones.

Nothing shows the gear change more clearly than that Beren’s captor in the earliest version is a demonic cat but in later versions the captor is the wolvish Necromancer – whom Tolkien in 1937 renamed Sauron. When in The Lord of the Rings Frodo first sees a vision of Sauron’s eye, “yellow as a cat’s”, he gazes into the deep well of Tolkien’s creative past.

In all the forms of the story here, Lúthien is the key figure, “more fair than mortal tongue can tell” but also more resourceful than Beren. It is she who springs him from prison and defeats his captor. When together they reach the end of the quest in Morgoth’s throne room, everything falls to her. If this is meant to be the lost original of “Rapunzel”, it is strikingly in tune with much more recent, female-centred fairy-tale revisionings. It is also a hymn to Edith – and to her power to lift Tolkien out of the depths. 

Beren and Lúthien
J R R Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, 288pp, £20

John Garth is the author of “Tolkien and the Great War” and is writing a book on Tolkien and the 20th century, “Tolkien’s Mirror”

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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