Ahh. Beauty and the Beast. All those wonderfully warming memories of watching it as a child on the old VCR. Singing along with Belle and the talking teapot. And the books. O, the books! And now it’s on stage: how delightful! I’ll be able to see all my Disney memories coming to life at the theatre! O wait… Hang on… I seem to have got something wrong.
Indeed, I had not gone to the Young Vic to see a magical production of the much loved fairy-tale in all its Disney glory. I was already somewhat aware that it was taking a more adult-oriented turn and would include some nudity… But a bit of nudity is fine. It’s a story about two people falling in love, isn’t it? Waiting in the queue, the attendant passes from one person to the next informing something… Wait, what is he saying? Ah, it’s “just a warning. The show will contain full sexual nudity”. Full… and sexual. Hmm. Well, I’m sure it will just be a short scene; it’ll be over in a flash. O wait… twenty minutes into the play and they’ve both stripped naked. Not to worry. They’ll be putting their clothes back on at any moment now.
As you can expect, this production of Beauty and the Beast in the Maria Theatre of the Young Vic – directed by Phelim McDermott and starring real life couple Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz – completely and utterly subverted the innocence of the fairy-tale we all know and love. The play took a rather explicitly adult route in the telling of the tale by dealing primarily with sex. The full frontal nudity, which originally seemed to be an artistic choice on the director’s part, ended up overwhelming much of the play; yet this only reinforced the discomfort that is naturally evoked by something so taboo as sex on stage. Apparently Fraser and Atlas Muz would make the entire cast and crew strip naked during rehearsals in an attempt to overcome the initial awkwardness of uncovering their private parts for the world to see. Taking a more serious turn, the play also dealt with notions of imprisonment, disability and homicide. Fraser’s bestial portrayal was not brought about by the means of a costume, but rather his natural disability, invoking once more a sense of social taboo whilst at the same time arguing that it should no longer be considered as such. Furthermore, in a strange twist of humour and menace the play showed Beauty’s father as a near victim of murder by his two eldest daughters.
Despite these somewhat darker tones, it was in fact very comedic and in a strange way, charming. The couple morphed the classic fairy tale and stories of their own life into one highly entertaining (and interactive) production, adding an interesting twist to the traditional connotations of what we know to be theatre. The duo pranced around the stage in their birthday suits for the majority of the play, genitalia casually flailing about here and there, with their two “puppet slaves” doing most of the hard work – including an impressive opening picture show from an OHP which was about the only thing that made the play resemble a children’s story. One particularly entertaining scene was a humorous skit from Atlas Muz’ burlesque routine for ‘Miss Coney Island’, which involved a “fake” severed hand that sinisterly stripped and groped her against her will. What’s more, there were some rather enthusiastically consumed figs and an array of erotic fruit: a halved melon and a courgette (make of that what you will). It all ended with what could only be described as an enthusiastic enactment of the Karma Sutra. What more could anyone want from a play? Overall, it was quite an experience. Though very amusing, it is not necessarily one that I would want to relive, but I appreciated the humour all the same. Frankly, I was just grateful not to be sitting in the front row.
by Amrita Pal