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Joanna Lumley Dresses Down, Ditches Glamour for West End Return

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"La Bete"
Actors David Hyde Pierce, left, and Mark Rylance star in "La Bete" by David Hirson at the Comedy Theatre in London. Valere represents the voice of populism, Elomire the voice of high art in this verse drama. Photographer: Manuel Harlan/Premiere PR via Bloomberg

July 9 (Bloomberg) -- Joanna Lumley is back on the West End stage for the first time in 15 years -- for a role that sees her sport bloomers and curl papers. The actress is throwing away the glamour of the TV parts that have won many male hearts. In “La Bete,” she has chosen the wrong vehicle.

David Hirson’s 1991 verse comedy is a challenge for Lumley, 64, best known for her shows such as “Absolutely Fabulous” and her campaigning to help Gurkha soldiers.

It doesn’t help that she plays alongside the on-form Mark Rylance, fresh from his triumph in Jez Butterworth’s play “Jerusalem.” He brings manic stage energy, constant gangly movements and breathless little giggles to the role of Valere, the jester, who courts popularity.

Valere is set against Elomire, a playwright who focuses on posterity. Their battle for supremacy represents a well-known artistic dilemma. It’s not a dilemma the author himself need worry about.

With its leaden symbolism, lopsided construction and fey 17th-century setting, it’s doubtful whether Hirson’s play, now revived at London’s Comedy Theatre, will please either the crowds or connoisseurs.

A symbolic dramatic conflict should hook like a grab-claw. An irreconcilable battle between, say, truth and lies, or revenge and forgiveness -- that’s dramatic. A conflict between critical and commercial acclaim has all the irreconcilability of a peaceful old couple snoring in bed. Plenty of artists -- Shakespeare, Goethe, Haydn, Puccini -- have managed to have both, after all.

Princess, Patron

The cast works hard to breathe life into the premise. Lumley tries to be both capricious and authoritative as the princess who is patron of Elomire’s troupe, and David Hyde Pierce (from “Frasier”) takes on the thankless stooge role of the uptight Elomire.

Director Matthew Warchus encourages them all to go to extremes, with unfortunate results. Rylance sports crooked false teeth and crazily mismatched clothes. Lumley appears at Elomire’s apartments in odd dishabille. Eh? I thought it was supposed to be the court of Louis XIV, not a 17th-century production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Hirson too obviously favors the character of the jester, and provides him with rambling speeches about art and life. At one stage Valere attempts a moment of mock humility, slaps himself and cries, “Oh gag me, gag me!” during the middle of a monologue, before getting back to his logorrhea. The temptation to take him up on his offer was almost too strong to resist.

Rating: * ½.

Strauss, Salome

For real dramatic punch, the Royal Opera’s production of “Salome” by Richard Strauss knocks “La Bete” into a cocked hat.

Director David McVicar updates the action to the 1930s and sets the story in the creepy kitchens of a mansion. This is where Salome, a little rich girl, meets Jokanaan, the prisoner of her stepfather. When Jokanaan refuses her amorous advances, she demands his head.

Angela Denoke performs the title role as one long, slow, mesmerizing build. She starts deliberately awkwardly with gawky restrained movements, and holds back the power of her voice. By the end, when she’s smeared with blood and pouring out her mad desire to kiss Jokanaan’s head, she lets rip dramatically and vocally with sensational results.

Johan Reuter makes a commanding Jokanaan, and tenor Gerhard Siegel is terrific as the unhinged Herod. Conductor Hartmut Haenchen matches the action by holding back the brass until the white-knuckle climax. It’s one of those rare operatic nights when everything comes together like a dream.

Rating: ****.

Glyndebourne, Giovanni

Jonathan Kent’s production of “Don Giovanni” at Glyndebourne is less successful. He sets the action in the operatically overworked era of 1950s Italy, and dresses the characters in tailored suits, dark glasses and wide skirts.

The narrative is clear, and the action slick. For all that, it lacks bite. Paul Brown’s set, a revolving gray cube that opens in different configurations to reveal a church, a graveyard and a dining room, promises more than it delivers. Once the sides have swung out a few times, the changes then feel less and less fresh. The ending brings no surprises. No flames, no set transformation, nothing: Just a slow trapdoor descent for the Don and Commendatore.

Gerald Finley (Don Giovanni) transcends everything with his beautiful voice and creates a lively relationship with Leporello (Luca Pisaroni). The rest of the relationships feel underpowered, although Kate Royal (Elvira) and Anna Virovlansky (Zerlina) sing attractively. Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting zips along pleasantly.

If there’s nothing to scare the horses in Kent’s traditional approach, there’s not enough to excite them either.

Rating: ** ½.

“La Bete” is at the Comedy Theatre until Sept. 4, and transfers to the Music Box Theater on Broadway on Sept. 23. Information: http://www.labetetheplay.com or +44-844-871-7622.

“Salome” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House until July 16. Information: until July 16. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

“Don Giovanni” is in repertoire at Glyndebourne until Aug. 27. Information: http://www.glyndebourne.com or +44-1273-813813.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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