“Beauty and the Beast”

at the Young Vic, Monday 9th December 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

After a brief introduction, Beauty and the Beast begins as simple, innocent storytelling told through the use of an overhead projector and cardboard cut-outs. It transports us back to our childhood, to the tales we used to recount sat in circles at school. The story is familiar, even in its de-Disneyfied state. As in real life, however, storytelling turns to game-playing and subsequently loses fictional pretence, as ONEOFUS and Improbable give us a fiercely intelligent, highly ‘adult’ deconstruction of a classic fairytale. We’d love to keep the innocence of childhood, but my god debauchery is so much sexier.

The structure is one we’re used to by now – a story is re-enacted on-stage (in this case a Grimm-inspired, ageing set designed by Philip Eddols) by actors who sometimes come ‘out of character’ to give us information or tell us a story (“You said we were doing Proper Theatre!”). In this case, the actors are real-life couple Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz. The former is an actor who was born with phocomelia of both arms after his mother took thalidomide during her pregnancy, whilst the latter is a dancer who has been described as “the royalty of burlesque”. The couple met whilst working at Coney Island events like ‘Sideshow on the Shore’ and ‘Burlesque By the Beach’, and they stand for the hero and heroine of the title respectively.  

With the help of puppeteers Jonny Dixon and Jess Jones, who articulate arms and make feasts float, Beauty and the Beast demonstrates that the maxim “There is no such thing as fairytales” is only true if we add the qualifier “as we know them”. Because unlike the Prince in the original story, Fraser has no alternative form. “I feel whole”, he tells us. Indeed, his manipulated false arms make him look beastly, meaning that when he then strips and washes his naked arse on a precariously perched foot, he looks positively princely.

Phelim McDermott’s raunchy, eclectic direction brings this point home, as the latter half of the play humorously (which reminds me, there’s a great funny bone joke) defends the notion that the beastly is beautiful. The two performers spend the latter half of the play baring all, as the fairytale is turned completely on its head to deconstruct its ideas about how things are “meant to be”. Thus we get bunnies banging, beasts bopping and a feast where fruits are fellated like you’ve never seen before. It’s a mark of the skilful work by all involved that these scenes are as beautiful as they are funny.

Though disability and fairytales are certainly considered thoroughly and with intellectual rigour, this isn’t a show about those themes per se. Rather, Beauty and the Beast is, like all good fairytales, a show about falling in love against the odds. Unlike all good fairytales, however, the rude bits aren’t covered up and there’s a crucial theme of empowerment running throughout, encapsulated by a poster that Fraser saw telling him that “If you don’t like your life, you can change it”.

Perhaps the show isn’t as progressive in its structuring and presentation as it believes itself to be, but it holds radicalism within its very make-up. In its use and contemplation of metaphor as conduit for real-life experience, Beauty and the Beast asks us all to believe in our own personal fairytales and to get in touch with our inner beasts so we can see every human around us as beautiful.

Photo: Sheila Burnett

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