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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Beard
Old Red Lion Theatre       Summer 2006

The first revival in almost forty years of Michael McClure's obscenely poetic reverie on myth and sexuality is an opportunity to reclaim a very interesting small play from being relegated to a minor footnote in theatre history.

Almost from the start The Beard was best known as a victim of that brief period in American and British cultural history when onstage nudity, obscenity or simulated sex was enough to incur the wrath of police and courts.

There's no nudity here, but ample portions of the standard limited repertoire of four-letter words, and a discreetly simulated bit of oral sex, none of it particularly shocking anymore. But there's also a lot more.

Two American icons, the outlaw Billy the Kid and the movie star Jean Harlow, meet in eternity and engage, through a kind of fugal dialogue filled with repetitions and subtle variations, in a dance of sexual power.

She feints with her mystery and allure, he parries with his macho swagger. Gradually we see that he is inviting her to throw off all inhibition and find her divine fulfilment through complete self-indulgence.

There is more than a whiff of late-60s hippie-dippie pop psychology and rhetoric here, but McClure's power as a poet (A decade older than most 60s writers, his credentials and perceptions were really more beat than hippie) gives it all considerable power.

It also suggests an allegorical level, America's masculine and feminine aspects both fighting to achieve full expression by breaking free of repression.

Barely an hour long, the play sustains its poetic intensity and evocative mood without overstaying its welcome.

Christopher Daley quickly finds and maintains a single note as Billy, at the risk of making him one-dimensional, while Victoria Yeates searches out different colours in Jean, leading her to occasional lapses and meanderings of characterisation and accent.

Nic Saunders directs with a clear sensitivity to the play's tone and meanings, though with a few slips in logic, as when Billy repeatedly invites Jean to sit on his lap while he's standing up.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Beard - Old Red Lion  Theatre 2006


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