Rachel Jones is in the belly of La Bête and its still-timely meditation on art

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Rachel Jones

The title of David Hirson’s satirical comedy La Bête translates to either “the beast” or “the fool.” Given that the play features the faceoff of two protagonists of extreme dispositions – whose epic self-righteousness takes flight in two of the longest soliloquies you’ll ever see on a stage – it invites a question: which is the beast, and which the fool? And for that matter, wherein lies the distinction?

These are just two of many questions that Soulpepper’s production of Hirson’s raucous satire will pose and explore. “It’s a beautifully written play,” enthuses Rachel Jones, who plays Princess Conti. “It has everything from broad comedy to some really challenging ideas. It’s also written in the style of Molière, in that it is all in rhyming couplets.” The play’s iambic pentameter showcases Hirson’s facility with language and pays homage to a number of literary tropes: “the language is exciting, especially when the playwright makes fun of his own style. It’s irreverent and hilarious.”

“In our play, the Princess is a very well-meaning financial supporter of the theatre, who believes she has hit upon a wonderful idea by inviting Valere (Gregory Prest), a boorish street clown, to join the playwright Elomire’s illustrious troupe in order to shake things up a bit.” It turns out that Prince Conti was an actual person and a real patron of Molière’s troupe. Jones’ gender-swapped “Princess Conti is the patron who supports the theatre troupe … in the south of France around the time of Molière (anagrams anyone?),” winks Ms Jones. And hers is not the only character whose gender has been changed for Soulpepper’s production. So, too, has the gender of the anagrammatic Elomire, played by Sarah Wilson.

“What I keep top of mind in playing [Princess Conti],” notes Ms Jones, “is that she feels she is very clever for having ‘discovered’ Valere, and that she is having a great influence on the evolution of theatre by bringing the two artists together. She is being daring and nouveau! That, and she has all the cards because she has all the money and power!” In La Bête, the two powerful women lock horns: the Princess born into money vs. the self-made Elomire who is fighting to preserve the reputation she has built. Their power struggle challenges the ideals, the nature and the very integrity of art, which presents these women with positions of power . . . and the means of retaining them.

Delightfully, the princess’ gown adds a complicated nuance to her position: “My costume looks unbelievable, but it’s huge, it weighs a ton, it’s hot and makes it really hard to go to the bathroom,” Ms Jones shakes her head. “Not going to lie, though . . . it makes me feel pretty fancy.” She looks every bit the princess on the outside, but the ornate gown wraps a firebrand: every regal head shake and elegant swirl of the skirt bring her decisive personality into focus.

Rachel Jones & Gregory Prest in La Bëte, Soulpepper; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The princess’ long-time patronage has resulted in some complacency within the acting troupe, who have has come to enjoy renown and the high life — particularly Elomire. Valere presents a sharp contrast to Elomire’s sophistication. He is a rube dazzled by his own grandiloquence. His delusions of wit lead to inexhaustible fits of bragging, complete with a dictionary’s worth of malapropisms, misquotations and coinages. Prone to frequent faux pas, he clashes with the rarified Elomire, who has become used to running the show her own way. Elomire patently disapproves of the Princess’ choice, but is cautioned by Bejart (Oliver Dennis) to temper her idealism for the sake of financial security. Valere and Elomire butt heads, and their conflict becomes comic fodder – and cogent commentary on what constitutes art and artist in society.

Ms Jones avers that aside from the play’s being “just a really good time”, it grapples with deeper themes and ideas about the nature of art. She sees clear modern parallels: “So in the age of people making their own YouTube videos and stuff like that, we are . . . asking the same questions as the play does: does art have to have particular rules? How does indie or self-created work compare with classic, established forms? Can they exist together? What’s the difference between art and entertainment?” A second big idea the play explores is truth in language – which is astoundingly relevant in what some US political critics refer to as “our post-truth world. What do you do with a big bragging, lying boor who waltzes in and starts taking over the world…?” she muses . . . and she might be speaking of the world of La Bête, or that of The Donald.

Decades on, the play’s examination of what is art is surprisingly relevant. An example of endurance and persistence, La Bête is Hirson’s best-known work, written in 1988. In an essay that he wrote for the 2010 revival, Hirson recalled the shopping of his script as a “fool’s errand.” He recalled mailing copies in cheap manila envelopes in the hopes of getting it read, only to be met with repeated rejections. When it was produced on Broadway three years later, it ran for only 25 performances. Finally, the 2010 West End revival resulted in an Olivier Award before transferring to Broadway, where it also met with critical and audience acclaim.  

Clearly, Hirson lived something of what La Bête suggests. What is art to some may not be art to others. And as Ms Jones knows, the artist’s life can be a slow, winding road. Given her own path to acting, it seems auspicious that La Bête would mark her Soulpepper debut. Having wanted to be an actor since childhood, she knows well the significance of pursuing dreams. Advised to pursue a more steady career, she studied English to the post-graduate level and even gained a Bachelor of Education degree. Yet rather than abandon her acting dream, she pursued it alongside her other studies with a persistent resolve. And she has now achieved such success that she has abandoned her initial plans to attend theatre school. When asked how she would advise young people trying to balance uncertain career aspirations with practical considerations, she immediately replies, “if it’s at all possible, try doing what you love first, no matter what other people say. When you’re younger is the time to jump in and try the scary things. That gets harder as you get older and maybe have a family to support. That said, if you’ve had to put off what you love, don’t forget it. It’s not impossible to come back to it later. You might have to work twice as hard, but if you want it, you will!”

Such a forthright response might surprise, considering Ms Jones’ description of herself as “shy…very often quiet and serious when I don’t know people well”. These people should realize, however, that she is “pretty much ridiculous” once you get to know her: an aspect of her that finds compelling translation on stage. “Just come see La Bête!” she invites warmly.  You can look for that “ridiculous” side, plus “you wouldn’t believe how good these people are that I get to work with!”

And just which of these good people is playing la vrai bête? Why, you must decide for yourself, after enjoying the frenetic wordplay and broad humour of this staged battle of wills, on-stage at Soulpepper until June 22!

Oliver Dennis, Sarah Wilson, Gregory Prest in La Bëte, Soulpepper; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

News You Can Use  

What: La Bête, by David Hirson
Featuring Ghazal Azarbad (Catherine De Brie), Oliver Dennis (Bejart), Raquel Duffy (Madeleine Bejart), Rachel Jones (Princess Conti), Gregory Prest (Valere), Paolo Santalucia (Rene Du Parc), James Smith (De Brie), Fiona Sauder (Dorine), Michaela Washburn (Marquise-Therese Du Parc), Sarah Wilson (Elomire); Directed by Tanja Jacobs

Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older (mature language and themes)

When: On stage until June 22, 2018

Where: Baillie Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, in the Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4

Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca or 416.866.8666 

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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