Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Review: Beauty and the Beast/Improbable Theatre

Last week I went to see Beauty and the Beast at Bristol Old Vic. Now, I love fairy tales and Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourites. When I looked through the blurb, I saw that it had a disabled actor playing the beast. Fair enough, I thought, I can see what they're doing there: should be interesting. I was pretty much excited about seeing it.

Boy oh boy was my disappointment swift. This show is awfully awful, like a monument to the monster of the theatrical ego, and everyone involved really needs to have a very serious word with themselves.

To start with, the two lead actors, Mat Fraser, and American burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz came on and introduced themselves, as themselves. Now, in theatre there's this thing called the fourth wall. It's the like the invisible tv screen between the actors and the audience, by which the actors pretend the audience aren't there, and thus get on with the story. Sometimes, actors like to break the fourth wall and interact with the audience. The first few times I saw this in the theatre, I thought it was cute. After a few more times, I started wanting to shove my hand in the actors' faces and shout 'Get back behind the fourth wall!'. Also, the phrase 'artistic practice' was invoked, which further moved me to violence.

Anyway, they then started to tell the story with shadow-puppetry. That was fine, if tedious. Then the female lead came on, in character, being Beauty, entering the beast's castle. With the aid of two puppeteers, they seemed to be trying to recreate some famous, entirely fantastic, scenes in Jean Cocteau's black and white film, La Belle et La Bete. They had even taken some lines of dialogue directly from it. Then Mat Fraser, as the Beast, appeared. Now, I understand what they were trying to do. The Beast in the story of Beauty and the Beast is hiding from society, because he isn't like everyone else, he's not human, and he's not normal. So by having a disabled actor play that role, you're asking people to think about how people regard disability in that way. The thing is, is disability beastly? I am not convinced it's a working metaphor, personally.

They then told the rest of the story, occasionally jumping in and out of the effing fourth wall, to tell us about their relationship in real life. They involved the puppeteers, to play themselves, which was hideously awkward. They got their kit off. They kept it off. And off. And off, thus rendering it completely uninteresting, and unsexy, as they just wandered round the stage in the buff. They ate fruit in an allegedly sexy manner. It all descended into a simulated sex scene which went on for what felt like hours, and made me realise that there is nothing more unerotic than watching two practised performers writhe gymnastically in front of a hundred slightly embarrassed English people. I was relieved when the puppeteers got naked as well, as at least I some different arses to look at. The only thing I could find to recommend was that everyone involved clearly had real pubes, which I haven't seen in public for ages.

The show wouldn't settle into any one thing: it wasn't exactly meaningful, about an issue; it wasn't exactly a comedy. It wasn't dark enough, or mysterious enough, or shocking enough, although I am sure it would have liked to have been all these things. I felt they were trying to poke holes in a taboo that didn't exist, and congratulating themselves about it.

The thing is, Beauty and the Beast is quite a dark, sexy and disturbing story anyway, unless you've only seen the Disney version. In La Belle et La Bete, made in the 1940s, the Beast is a kind of a cat human. The cat-human is so disturbingly attractive that when he turns back into a human, you're kind of disappointed. And if you do want a kinky, transgressive version of the story, I suggest you watch Secretary, which is poignant and moving. Both these films are available on dvd for less than a tenner, either would be a better night's entertainment than this awful pig's ear of a theatre piece.

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