La Bête

Mark Rylance thrusts greatness upon a so-so play.

La Bête
Comedy Theatre, London SW1

There's a problem developing with Mark Rylance. After years doing, no doubt, God's work running Shakespeare's Globe - and therefore being largely hidden from all but tourists and parties of schoolchildren - he has returned to the West End and shown himself to be, by some distance, our best stage actor. He is to Simon Russell Beale what Ian McKellen was to Antony Sher in the 1980s, and Olivier to Gielgud and Richardson in the 1960s. And this is a problem?

It can be, for not only can such talent reduce the rest of a cast to the status of a backing group, it can make a play look very much better than it is. This was certainly not the case last year with Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, in which Rylance, as Rooster Byron, seemed to invent as he went along a kind of theatrical naturalism; but it is so with La Bête, a briefly celebrated pastiche of Restoration comedy by the American playwright David Hirson, forgotten since the 1990s until this extraordinary revival in London.

The presence of David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier) and the blessed Joanna Lumley would ensure this revival a decent run in any case (it is soon off to Broadway), but Rylance quickly gains total dominance in the central part. The audience becomes the helpless subject of his Valere, a street entertainer whose crude populism has tickled the fancy of a Languedoc princess. As patron of the state theatre troupe, she insists that its leader, Elomire, played by Hyde Pierce, take him on. Elomire is horrified, but not as horrified as we are when his rival enters his office.

From a mouth impeded by hideously protruding front teeth, Valere lets loose gobbets of food and a flood of undigested thoughts, boasts, would-be witticisms, self-deprecations, dumb intellectual insights, flattery and every other kind of absurd self-aggrandisement. This tsunami begins with a protestation of piety ("Devotion comes to nothing if we come to summarise devotion in a sum - a tiny play on words . . . Doth please you not? I swear I made it up right on the spot") and is dammed a full 30 minutes later only when he stuffs a soiled handkerchief into his own mouth.

At midpoint, as if to emphasise that this logorrhoea is indeed verbal diarrhoea, he takes a shit in the lavatory behind Elomire's book-lined office. While this is happening, it is worth glancing occasionally at Hyde Pierce's face, which is a masterclass - an anthology of reactions. But Rylance's performance goes beyond acting to somewhere more disturbing. His mania is even more alarming than his ego. Uninhibitedness scarcely begins to describe it.

Unfortunately, Hirson has built his play upside down. Instead of this tour de force being the climax, it comes at the beginning. After that, the play begins a slow decline. Elomire gets a page of monologue in riposte, but its invective is ordinary: "Your ignorance is even more colossal - your brain is like some prehistoric fossil."

As the princess, Lumley has imperious presence, but she becomes funny only when she reverts to spoilt-baby mode. Valere performs an extract from his play The Dying Clown and it is terrible, but not terribly funny. Elomire's troupe is then called in to help perform Valere's equally disappointing longer work, The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz. Its moral, ironically, is that the world will worship the worthless showman over the worthy philosopher - but the play within the play is less entertaining than the play without. Most disappointing of all, perhaps, the script reveals Valere, in the end, not as mad and sad but stupid and cynical, although Rylance maintains the manic energy, literally climbing the walls of Mark Thompson's elegant, Old Master set.

The only subtlety in the piece lies in Hyde Pierce's interpretation of his part. It suggests that Elomire, the serious actor-writer, is as much an egotist as Valere and, for that matter, the princess. Each is convinced of the invincible rightness of his own subjective taste. Otherwise, La Bête's message is dull: however popular, bad art is inferior to good. In fairness, I don't think Hirson thought he was writing a serious play. A textual note calls for it to be performed in "absurdly high-comic style, at lightning speed", which the director Matthew Warchus and his troupe achieve. The problem is Rylance and the question he prompts: can a performance so outstanding be in aid of an extended sketch? A funny (if uneven) play about meretriciousness looks, itself, meretricious. We have Rylance to thank, and blame, for that.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times