- Beauty and the Beast dir. by Phelan McDermott
London’s Young Vic Theatre was the place to be last winter for anyone suffering from seasonal panto-induced ennui. Its production of Beauty and the Beast, a co-production between ONEOFUS and Improbable, was a welcome antidote to the usual, loosely fairy-tale-themed offerings on the theatrical calendar in Britain during the holiday period: a cure for those left disenchanted by the plethora of pantomimes, which remain a much-loved part of the festive calendar. Many things can be said for pantomimes: popular, family-friendly musical stage comedies, they are fun, raucous, loud, and almost guaranteed to [End Page 167] leave the audience feeling buoyant. The problem with pantomimes, or rather, the problem for anyone who takes a more serious interest in the afterlives of fairy tales, is that these shows make no attempt to engage with the fairy tales from which they glean their titles and main characters. As contemporary adaptations of classic tales, pantomimes offer little in the way of engaged response.
This unusual adaptation of Beauty and the Beast demonstrates that live performance can be used to startling effect to explore the latent content of a well-known story and that this material can then provide the means for exploding a few present-day myths. Beauty and the Beast stages a fairy tale stripped to its very core, to its “nascent patina,” to borrow a phrase from “The Tiger’s Bride,” Angela Carter’s spellbinding revision of the original French narrative. Billed as an “adult fairy tale” and directed by Phelan McDermott, Improbable’s production of Beauty and the Beast tells “the true love story of a natural born freak and an American beauty queen.” The “freak” is British disabled actor and musician Mat Fraser, and the beauty queen is his real-life wife, acclaimed burlesque performer (and former Miss Coney Island) Julie Atlas Muz. Renowned for magnetic routines of seductive choreography, Muz has managed that most difficult of tightrope acts and is now recognized and her work acclaimed in the mainstream as well as the underground art worlds. It was she who suggested to Fraser that they develop a collaborative performance based on “Beauty and the Beast” (presumably, given the production’s intended adult audience, Muz was thinking of Villeneuve’s tale rather than Beaumont’s more child-friendly version). The idea, she says, came from her own reading; at the time, she happened to be engrossed in The Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim.
The performance owes its shape and content largely to the adaptive ingenuity of Muz and Fraser, though the influence of McDermott is clear. The director was vital in developing a uniform and uniformly fearless show: a production that was consistent and coherent in its aims and attempts. Notably, it was McDermott who insisted that the leading couple integrate fiction and reality and interweave the recognizable story of “Beauty and the Beast” with their own personal narratives. Set-pieces of cabaret and dance bring verve and rhythm to the show, and delightful puppetry from Jess Mabel Jones and Jonny Dixon lighten the mood and keep things quirky.
Both leading actors are enthralling in their respective roles: Muz as a burlesque Beauty with plenty of zest, and Fraser as a complex and often unexpectedly entertaining Beast. But it is Fraser’s performance that really defines the performance, gives it power and passion and meaning. Born with congenital phocomelia, a condition that gives him stunted, flipper-like arms and no thumbs, Fraser redefines his disability as a paradigm for beastliness. In this way he forces the audience into direct confrontation with “otherness,” [End Page 168] with an otherness for which, in this production, unlike in the fairy tale, there is no metamorphic magic cure. Improbable’s Beauty and the Beast departs from the canonical ending to conclude not with the Beast being restored to perfect, human form by Beauty’s transformative love, but with Beauty (in her own...