This is a very strange play indeed -- an astonishing mix of good and bad writing. It's a very funny evening in the theatre (the Comedy Theatre, the one with the bad sightlines that should be knocked down) thanks to a vintage performance by the great Mark Rylance in the title role. Rylance is best known for playing Johnny Byron in Jerusalem, the role that deservedly won him an Olivier award. But his performance here is more reminiscent of his role as the well-meaning provincial country cousin in Boeing-Boeing, which won him a Tony on Broadway. Again, the director is Matthew Warchus.
This play by American writer David Hirson, first seen in 1992, is something of a homage to Moliere, who appears as 'Elomire'. The play is set on the fringes of the 17th century French court, it's in verse and it takes place in a single time and place, respecting the classical unities. At around 100 minutes, it's not just a single act but a single scene. Rylance excels as Valere, a vulgar charlatan actor who has no hint of his own shallowness. Like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, he overacts so completely that the result is magnificent. Plunging into an unstoppable 30-minute monologue which leaves Elomire and his sidekick completely at a loss for words, Valere is alternately preeningly vain, hopelessly adrift and falsely modest, but always self-obsessed. Rylance has an exquisite sense of comic timing and a feel for the audience that exceeds any other actor I know.
The verse has the rhythms of Moliere and strong echoes of his best plays -- Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope. 'God loves the critics, bless their picky hearts!' was a line I particularly liked. Aphrodite rhymes with nightie, and the blend of 17th century formality and modern wisecracking is very funny. I felt Moliere would have loved the style.
He would. I think, have been less impressed by the play's structural flaws. After writing one terrific part, Hirson doesn't seem to have bothered much with any of the others. The Princess, it appears, has commanded Elomire to take Valere into his acting company and work with him. For Elomire, it's a case of 'over my dead body'. Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) has nothing to do except react with horror for most of the play, and the remainder of the cast are cyphers. Joanna Lumley appears thoroughly uncomfortable (in a red wig, a nightie and barefoot) in the last third of the play, in which Valere performs one of his short and ghastly plays. When the Princess reaffirms her order to Elomire to work with Valere, the playwright refuses, but the rest of his company abandons him.
Lumley's unease isn't her fault. The divine Joanna can do no wrong in my book, and will be my preferred candidate to be not just a princess but Queen, should a vacancy arise at Buckingham Palace. The playwright hasn't managed to decide what is motivating the Princess. Why is she promoting this idiotic charlatan? It's never made clear. Some argue that Hirson is setting up a conflict between popular art and commercial art, but we never get to see Elomire's creations and compare them with those of Valere. And the conflict isn't really between art and commerce, or between genius and mediocrity. The defection of the other actors at the end of the play means nothing because the playwright hasn't brought them on earlier and created any meaningful human relationships between them and Elomire; they simply appear from nowhere. Structurally, this is a play with one character, at whom we laugh, but we don't really care about anybody. Hyde Pierce (best known as Niles Crane in the sitcom Frasier) is landed with a part that is too underwritten to allow the audience to identify with him.
Most people are less picky than I am about these things and will enjoy the play, particularly Rylance's bravura performance. But I like to imagine that if Moliere was up there sitting on a cloud, he would have lots of advice to offer Hirson on how to make this play better.