Matthew Warchus tells Henrietta Bredin why he is directing an American play inspired by Molière
Rehearsing is an extraordinarily intensive, exploratory, deeply engaging business and director Matthew Warchus, emerging from a long day’s work on his new production of La Bête, by David Hirson, takes a while to change gear, blinking slightly dazedly as we walk towards the Old Vic in search of somewhere quiet to talk.
‘It’s a slippery play, this one,’ he says. ‘The text is so dense and highly wrought and it’s changing shape as we go along. The acting of it creates dimensions that just aren’t apparent on the page.’ He’s a man who knows a great deal about the process of transmuting words into vital theatrical life, and, with recent rollicking successes under his belt, ranging from Boeing-Boeing to The God of Carnage and The Norman Conquests, he is in a position to feel confident about taking on a play that had a very bumpy ride indeed on its first appearance in New York back in 1991. Written by an American, in rhyming couplets inspired by the verse forms of the 17th-century French playwright Molière, it has all the polished complexity and allure of an exquisitely constructed clock. And the precision of its workings, the sly refinement of its humour, demands bravura acting from performers whose technical assurance is matched by impeccable comic instincts.
Fortunately, that shouldn’t be a problem with the three main roles played by Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce (the deliciously fastidious Niles in the long-running television series Frasier) as two vastly contrasting actors, Valère and Elomire, and Joanna Lumley as their autocratic Princess patron (a role originally written for a man).
‘I’d spoken to Mark Rylance about playing Valère very early on,’ says Warchus, ‘and the idea developed that he and Elomire should be like brothers, or conflicting sides of the same character. It then became apparent to me that the play would derive great benefit aurally, musically, by adding an entirely different tone of voice, to get some variety into the sound. With Joanna on board we’ve got that balance. The list of first ideas for people to play that role was hilarious, a combination of names that would never normally appear together and never will again — men and women of every possible age, shape and size, all up for the same character.
‘Paying close attention to the way that the text will sound is almost like making sure that sung text comes over properly in an opera performance. There are moments in this when characters speak at the same time in just the same way as characters sing simultaneously during an opera but are saying different things. I wanted to make sure that it was clear that this is an American play, despite the fact that it’s filtered through the sensibilities of 17th-century France. There’s a danger of people being slightly distanced from it, even of their thinking that it is in fact an old play, a version of something written by a contemporary of Molière. So I made the decision that, apart from the Princess who, as played by Joanna, will have her own uniquely distinctive English tones, everyone else will sound American, so that there should be a really strong contrast between the muscularity and modernity of modern American accents as opposed to the more formal, clipped cadences of English.
So what we’ll be getting is a contemporary American period drama containing a play within a play, wildly baroque and inventive word games, rhymes within rhymes and high potential for good old-fashioned tightly paced, vertiginously timed, edge-of-the seat farce. It’s an enticing prospect.
‘It requires enormous discipline,’ says Warchus, ‘and the imposition of a sort of logic and fiercely controlled comic spin on what becomes an increasingly mad situation. I think it’s possible to inhabit this story in a way that makes it feel real and truthful, as if it’s actually happening. The actors are performing the roles of a troupe of actors who find themselves in a state of absolute extremity and desperation, forced to respond to their patron’s arbitrary demands or run the risk of losing their livelihoods altogether.’
I now imagine the atmosphere in that Waterloo rehearsal studio as being rather like that of a training ground for a crack group of athletes, stretching and flexing their muscles, straining every sinew to reach peak performance level. Warchus agrees that both mental and physical fitness are essential. An additional challenge is that he was first approached to direct the play in New York but agreed to do so only on condition that it would be performed in London first, before transferring to Broadway. ‘It’s not that London audiences are any less demanding,’ he says, ‘but New York audiences, and critics, are tough, and very swift to judge. I really love the difference between the two — perhaps surprisingly, the laughs tend to come at the same points, but the difference is in the scale of reaction. If an audience here laughs, a New York audience laughs louder; if an audience here claps, a New York audience claps and stands up; an intake of breath here is a gasp there. And they’ve got one extra noise that I’ve never heard here, when something really exciting happens; it’s like [he throws his head back and lets rip] “Whooooaaaaa!”. The whole thing is much more like a sporting event really. It’s fantastic.’
Rylance and Hyde Pierce as Valère and Elomire have a double act to create, playing off each other and building up a partnership of contrasts, the former as a vulgar, rackety vaudevillian, the latter as an exquisitely formal classicist. Morecambe and Wise, Vladimir and Estragon, Laurel and Hardy. And whatever emerges will be underpinned by music. Again, Warchus is aiming to reach the essence of the play by intertwining the period and the contemporary. He has commissioned composer Claire van Kampen to write music which quotes from and draws upon the music of Lully, court composer to Louis XIV. ‘I always find comedy to be a musical thing in itself,’ he says. ‘It’s not so much about timing a line as about phrasing. The comedy I’m interested in is based on situation rather than gags — the absurdity and agony of a situation which is entirely real for the person involved but from the outside appears ridiculous and makes you laugh. More than anything else it’s about fear. That’s what farce is built on: the terror of a person in a room convinced that a door is going to open at the wrong time with hideous consequences. It takes a long time to get that energy to function, for that music to start working, but when it does and you can pull an audience along on the ride, there’s nothing better. They mustn’t get bored and they mustn’t get confused — if you manage to achieve both those things then, whether they’re laughing, crying, shocked, pensive, whatever it is, they’ll be all right. You have to end up trusting to that.’
La Bête is at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London, SW1 from 26 June 2010.