Soulpepper stages Laurence Olivier-winning Comedy at the Young Centre in Toronto
Can wisdom come from bad art, or is good art worth suffering for? This is, to some degree, the central question of Soulpepper‘s La Bête, the 1992 Laurence Olivier Award winner for Best Comedy now playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. The answer, apparently, is best served in the form of rhyming couplets.
Written by David Hirson, La Bête centres around a theatre troupe in France in 1654. Their patron’s request to introduce a new player to the troupe — the crude, self-aggrandizing Valere (Gregory Prest) — is met with resistance by the troupe at large, particularly the high-minded Elomire (Sarah Wilson). As they battle over what makes for good art, the conflict between these two characters comes to symbolize a more ephemeral clash of high and low culture.
The play is divided into two acts. The first act is largely wordplay, mostly delivered by an energetic and frankly heroic Prest as the rambling Valere, who speaks — literally — for half an hour straight in one of the play’s more famous monologues. This scene is an absolute marathon to watch, and Prest delivers it with an admirably light touch, exercising fluid control of his body and the digressive dialogue even as the character seems totally out of control of his own mouth.
Despite Prest’s strong performance, I had a hard time connecting to this first act. It’s just such an endurance test of fast-flying language, done entirely in rhyming couplets, by a character who is so buffoonish and irritating, so absolutely oblivious to anything but his own words, that it becomes active effort to keep up and pay attention. This is, of course, the point — by the second act, this scene has fully established just what an oblivious fool Valere is — but it means that a large chunk of the act is just words, words, words. Thematically appropriate, sure, but mentally I started to wander.
I think, to some degree, how charming you find this first act will depend on how clever you find the main gimmick of rhyming couplets. Valere cracks a joke at how monotonous they are in the second act, and he’s not wrong — even Shakespeare did not write entirely in couplets. The effect was a little jarring for me, as though the play was appealing to other early modern plays by recreating, ad nauseum, a single element of the structure, but doing so out of context. (Usually couplets are peppered throughout segments of blank verse, rather than making up the whole). The play’s determination to rhyme leaves the dialogue itself a little clunky in places, though the cast as a whole carries most of it off without it feeling stilted.
While the first act left me exhausted, however, the second act totally and unexpectedly won me back. A large part of this is the introduction of several new characters, and the greater balance of dialogue between Valere and the others. We watch as the troupe’s patron, Princess Conti (Rachel Jones), demands that Elomire work with Valere, an effort that culminates in the troupe putting on Valere’s hilariously ham-fisted play. The staging here of bad melodrama by way of a bedsheets, rubber chickens and clattering symbols is really funny and full of personality, and the new variety of characters is a treat.
Sarah Wilson’s Elomire gets to shine more fully in Act 2 as well, delivering a powerful monologue at the end of the play in favour of the artist’s moral imperative to stand for quality in art. Wilson’s Elomire is eloquent and unflinching as she carries the emotional stakes of the play on her shoulders with utter command of the stage.
It should be noted that Tanja Jacobs has changed the roles of Elomire and Prince(ss) Conti from male (in the original) to female (here). This choice really highlights the potentially malicious undertones of Valere’s errant foolery, particularly as he speaks over Elomire for a full half-hour even as he sings her praises. It keeps the tension between them uncomfortably but silently gendered, and adds a compelling layer to their conflict.
Without spoiling, the final moments of the play — as the players at large must choose between Valere’s fun, ‘popular’ art and Elomire’s ‘high’ art — is a genuinely provoking meditation on the politics and dangers of high versus low art. Soulpepper’s adaptation makes this choice appealingly muddy: Valere’s play is undoubtedly fun, but Elomire’s insistence that fools find power in words without substance is particularly chilling in a world of alternative facts.
As much as La Bête was an acquired taste for me, the second half made me appreciate, in hindsight, more of the first. While I still think the second half is far more compelling as a whole, in my view it’s far better to end on a high note than the opposite. Even with my reservations, La Bête is powerfully acted and compellingly adapted by the stage, and well worth your time.
Just be forewarned of those damn rhyming couplets!
- La Bête is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until June 22, 2018.
- Performances alternate between 7:30 pm evening shows and 1:30 pm matinees. See here for particular dates.
- Tickets start at $35.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by phone by calling (416) 866 8666, or in person at the box office.
- Audience Advisory: Contains mature subject matter, viewer discretion is advised.
Photo of Rachel Jones and Gregory Prestby Cylla von Tiedemann.