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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times