Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz poke fun at the absurdity of normality in their new production of the age old tale of Beauty and Beast. Directed by Phelim McDermott, Artistic Director of Improbable, the company conspire to make an adult fairytale like no other. Tam Gilbert reviews a performance at the Young Vic, London
Gosh! Where to begin? Taking my seat, I asked myself what was I expecting from this ‘adult’ version of Beauty & the Beast? Nudity, to be sure, but more importantly, an exploration into body image and what it is, that attracts. Are 'beauty' and 'beastliness' typical? Who decides?
The set was ornate, in the style of William Morris, with lead swirling with roses and buds. There were steps going up, with an animal head with horns on a banister. On one wall, hung a mirror and a red parrot mask. Roses abounded and a beautiful gate served as an entrance, giving the feeling that the outside was inside.
The story opens with Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz introducing themselves and the two puppeteers Jonny Dixon and Jess Jones. I was surprised when Mat opened with some candid talk about his impairment issues. I wondered why he felt the need to explain, but as the story had an interesting mix of autobiographical and classic fairy-tale in its style, it was, of course, absolutely necessary.
We were gently introduced to the classic story by speedy narration from the protagonists and a ‘paper cinema’ effect, where Jonny and Jess masterfully used projection and puppetry to show us Beauty’s removal from her family and journey to the castle. When it was clear that Beauty was trapped in the castle, the cinema ceased and the physical acting began.
Mat and Julie’s true love story was cleverly interwoven with that of Beauty and the Beast’s. One moment, the Beast would be taunting Beauty in his splendid purple robe; the next, he would step out of character and become 21st Century Mat, telling us very honestly, about his life. I was touched by Julie’s story too. In one very ‘real’ moment, she told us about her farewell ritual when parting from Mat. The nature of their work means that the couple often spend time apart, and when it’s time for him to leave New York for London, she’ll chase the taxi down the street, blowing kisses, catch it at a red light, kiss him passionately and watch him drive away.
The physical undressing was like a peeling away of the layers. As Beauty and the Beast’s love grew, he allowed her to see more of himself. When Beauty arrived; the act of eating was a solitary and formal one – the Beast presided as she ate, but he would only drink wine. I was reminded of my dislike of eating amongst strangers; what should be a ‘coming-together’ can be a traumatic experience for some. It was very uplifting to see the Beast eventually feeling comfortable enough to play – their fruit fight was both a funny and sensual experience.
Their sexuality and love was powerfully depicted through burlesque, cabaret and masks. As an audience member unused to some of Mat’s more hard-core work, I found it very liberating to see the physical coming together, knowing that they were being true to themselves.
The comic, personal and passionate love stories of Beauty and the Beast and Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz will go down a storm when the show hits New York, and cannot be missed when it must, undoubtedly, return to London.