Mark Rylance is rigged out like a walking, talking banqueting table.
In the West End's star-studded revival of La Bête – a Molièresque comedy set in 17th-century France – Rylance's Valere is a popular street clown, a preposterous bragging fool.
Suddenly called upon to give a command performance by an aristocratic patroness (Joanna Lumley), this puffed-up king of commedia dell'arte hurriedly cobbles together some postprandial regalia. He then parades around, trailing a crimson tablecloth like a coronation robe, crowned with piled-high bowls of fruit. Somewhere between Carmen Miranda and Bottom the ass – with grinning buckteeth – Rylance's Valere is surely vanitas incarnate.
A question mark, though, hovers over who's the most monstrous ego battling for supremacy here. The patroness can turn into a foot-stamping autocrat. Moreover, she accuses her previous favourite, Elomire (David Hyde Pierce from Frasier), of being an arrogant purist. He's a high-minded playwright driven round the bend by the low-brow windbag, Valere. Will they ever collaborate, as Lumley demands, or will one be out on his ear?
This costume drama in rhyming couplets is, by the way, only mock-Louis XIV. It was penned in the 1990s by the Yale-educated American David Hirson. However, you might be forgiven for thinking it's bona fide Molière in translation. In fact, it's more fun than the Comedy Theatre's last production: a so-so update of Molière's The Misanthrope.
What's startling in Matthew Warchus's production, is how La Bête's relevance to our own dumbing-down culture develops more bite towards the end and leaves you worried. Ultimately, it asks what choices intellectual writers and artists have. If they're to earn more than a crust, must they get off their high horse and sell out? Is populism degrading, or no bad thing?
The snag is, before Hirson grows thought-provoking, he lets his silly side dominate, very nearly ad nauseam. Rylance has to pull out all the stops to prevent the massively extended joke of Valere's motor-mouth blathering wearing thin: pontifical malapropisms punctuated with farts and burps.
Rylance always manages to be absurdly funny, though, whatever the show-off role. He also, characteristically, lets you see the insecurity beneath the swagger. Hopelessly out of his depth in Elomire's resplendent library, shelves reaching to the sky, Rylance's asinine grin twitches nervously as he scurries away, deflated, from his own clangers.
Though doubtless a crowd-puller, Lumley is exposed here as a comparatively feeble stage comedienne. Nonetheless, Pierce's West End debut is wholly assured. An excellent straight foil to Rylance, you can almost see the steam coming out of his ears as he exits to bang his head resoundingly against a wall.
Old-school culture vultures will give You Me Bum Bum Train a wide berth on the grounds of title alone. However, anyone in an adventurous humour should race to the LEB Building – an abandoned office block in Bethnal Green – and throw themselves headlong into this delightfully funny and dreamlike piece of immersive theatre (part of the Barbican's ever-pioneering Bite season).
Deceptively, the reception desk looks dreary when you check in for your solo mystery tour. The foyer offers only grey carpet and a glimpse of concrete stairwell through heavy swing doors. What, however, is that distant wild cheering, erupting from somewhere in the architectural bowels? And why are you being ferried through the swing doors, to begin with, in a wheelchair?
Co-devised by Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd, You Me Bum Bum Train is a warren of surprises, a madcap journey that proves peculiarly confidence-building. Instead of being just a promenading voyeur, you become this show's picaresque hero or heroine, winging it through ever-changing scenarios, being mistaken for a big cheese.
It's a bit like a blagger's traineeship crossed with Alice in Wonderland and a playful assault course. The wheelchair jettisoned, you get to fly and crawl along tunnels. The flying, for me, made this high art in the sense of near-delirious giggling.
Two or three encounters could be cut. And there should be preliminary warning for the chronically shy. Yet, even if your immediate reaction is to curl up and die, as mine was when first required to participate, the low-budget playfulness and intimacy (just you and a bunch of young actors) miraculously bring you out of your shell.
Not By Bread Alone is another extraordinary theatrical event – Nalaga'at, from Israel, being the world's only company of deafblind performers. This Lift production's principal concept is beautiful: the performers knead and bake bread while communicating their everyday experiences and dreams.
It has to be said, director Adina Tal tends towards the saccharine. Not By Bread Alone also becomes over-busy, with slapstick vignettes and everyone spinning coloured umbrellas – at odds with the lonely, silent darkness of deafblind existence, which several of the cast mention in passing.
What is wondrous is seeing this troupe pass their thoughts, in sign-language, along a daisy chain of conjoined hands until the words reach one who isn't mute. His haunting, ululating voice is translated into English on a screen overhead.
I'd also thoroughly recommend getting a pre-show drink in the appended BlackOut Bar, where there's no chink of light. You're led by blind waitresses to your table, holding on to each other's shoulders in a soft, snaking line. Drinks and nibbles materialise as if by magic. Paradoxically scary and serene.
'La Bête' to 4 Sep (0844 871 7622); 'You Me Bum Bum Train' to 24 Jul (0845 120 7550); 'Not by Bread Alone' (020-8369 5454) to 15 Jul
Kate Bassett sees Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second AvenueReuse content