In addition to a pair of Tony-winning leading men, David Hirson's La Bete has arrived on Broadway with a member of British TV royalty above the title: Iconic star Joanna Lumley is making her Broadway debut as the play's strong-willed Princess. Performed entirely in iambic pentameter, the comedy centers on what happens when the Princess forces a newly discovered clownish talent, Valere (Mark Rylance), upon the palace’s intellectual resident playwright, Elomire (David Hyde Pierce). It's a far cry from Lumley's best-known role, outrageous fashion editor Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous, in which a bottle of vodka appeared to be permanently glued to one hand and cigarettes to the other. After a recent matinee performance, Lumley chatted with Broadway.com about changing her character’s gender, the show’s tricky language and the possibility of an upcoming AbFab reunion.
La Bete marks your Broadway debut. So, congratulations! How has the show been going?
Fantastic. New York is a fabulous city to play. There’s such a huge enthusiasm here. People come in ready to love the show and are so un-cynical. I’m not criticizing London audiences, but it’s just really stunning to come here and to play this larger stage. It’s so lovely to come out afterwards to sign autographs. Everybody is looking so happy because they adored the show and roared with laughter.
The show’s original 1991 New York run was short-lived. Were you aware of the material before coming in?
I didn’t see it before, and when they sent it over to me they sent the original script where my character was a prince instead of a princess. So I read it like that and I must say I was just knocked flat. Then when I heard Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce were going to be in it and Matthew Warchus was directing, I said yes in a heartbeat.
Was it difficult figuring out this character knowing it was originally written as a man?
Not a bit. The character is a figure of authority and someone who’s used to having their whims favored by underlings. That would play the same for any person with tremendous power. I was speaking to [playwright] David Hirson the other night, and he said he now can’t imagine the show with a prince again. I believe it was Matthew and Mark’s idea that a woman might be quite an interesting ingredient to put in there amongst the men. The show starts with Valere giving a lengthy speech, so by the time he’s finished his talking you’ll have had three men onstage for nearly an hour. A woman coming in brings a new ingredient somehow. I love that she can have real favorites among the men. She has a bit of a crush on Elomire, but her new passion is for Valere, so there’s a little bit of jealousy involved, which is easier realized with a woman.
Your character makes quite the spectacular entrance.
There’s so much gold confetti! I didn’t have that in London. I’m going to put it in my contract now that everything I do needs to have such fanfare.
Was it difficult to learn a show that's performed in iambic pentameter?
Well, all Shakespeare is iambic pentameter, and Moliere…I’d done those in French at school. Without sounding too pompous, the important thing to learn is what you mean in your speech, then you consider how it’s actually constructed. Whether it’s in prose, blank verse or rhyming verse, the essential thing is to get the meaning across. This style is easier and harder to learn in that there’s not time for real space. If you imagine a drawing room comedy with people wandering on looking out into the garden saying, “That bird is singing beautifully, Lydia,” we don’t have much of that [laughs]. The play is like an express train—it gathers force and is performed in real time, which is fantastic.
At one point, you surprise the audience by appearing in a box seat to watch the show-within-a-show. Any fun stories involving the audience members who are already sitting in the box?
That’s also special for New York! This box is accessible through the pass door so I can hurtle off the stage, pick my skirt up like an old witch and run up the stairs and suddenly arrive in the box where there’s a little chair set specially for me. The audience members there are sometimes a little startled. A spotlight is put on me, so I’ve noticed some people steering themselves sideways to get out of the light, but mostly I think they love it. I’m in the conventions of the play, though, so I have to ignore them because as far as I’m concerned I’m the only one there. But Mark throws a rose up to me and sometimes it hits one of them, so I’ll give them a comforting pat on the shoulder as they have their eyes speared by a rose stem.
Moving on to other highlights from your career, do people expect you to act like Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous when they meet you?
Well I’ve done so many other parts that people don’t usually call me Patsy, but secretly people have a great love for her because she was so disgusting, selfish, bad-mannered and vile. Bad people are funny. Patsy was just divine to play, as you could imagine. The show was magic, and next year is our 20th anniversary of the first season!
Is there anything planned to commemorate the milestone?
There might be a special or something. We can’t let the occasion go unmarked. I’m praying that we can all get together. Knowing [show creator and co-star Jennifer Saunders] it will be fabulous. It doesn’t matter how old we get because in some of the episodes we fast-forwarded to Patsy and Edina being about 112 years old. They’re utterly puffed up, revolting and in wheelchairs, so it doesn’t matter at what age we do it because we know they’re still alive, old and plugged into vodka machines.
The show always seemed like it would have been a great fit for the stage.
There was conversation of doing something. You would’ve needed most of the cast, though, and everybody—Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks and June Whitfield—works nonstop in film, TV and stage. It was really hard to get us all together.
Last year you, Jennifer, Dawn French and Sienna Miller filmed a hilarious Mamma Mia! spoof for Comic Relief. The character of Tanya is similar to Patsy. Any desire to star in the show onstage?
Oh my god no, darling, I can’t sing! I think you have to be a show person to do that musical. How funny though! That was the beautiful Christine Baranski being fabulous in the movie, I couldn’t do that. But it was such fun to film. I think ABBA is just stupendous. All these people sneered at them back in their day and called it rubbish, but guess who’s lasted like bright shining stars!
You were also a Bond girl in the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Was that as glamorous as it sounds?
They bought a mountain in Switzerland for six months! They literally just bought the mountain and nobody else was allowed in except the villagers and the whole crew of this immense Bond film. It was like the circus coming to town. It was fantastic and the money spent and the glamour and the fabulousness…I was very young, about 22 or something, and it was just the business. I thought even then, "I’ll never be in a movie as big, grand and as fine as this.”
La Bete contains a lot of discussion about the importance of high art vs. populism. Is that something you’ve encountered in your own career?
There’s that debate going on within the industry all the time, particularly with television. Those of us in the business all go, “Oh no, not another game show or Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing [the British version of Dancing with the Stars]." These shows are so great and so popular, but all of us starving actors are staring with greedy eyes thinking, “Why can’t we get back to some real art and drama?” I also think that in the western world we’ve become a bit frivolous, a bit caught up with the juvenile, and have lost some of the reverence we’ve had for the sage days of yore, when older people were regarded as wise. We’re obsessed with youth. We’ve cheapened ourselves a bit. Of course it’s more fun, but at what cost?
The Princess also talks about people having hidden talents. Do you have any of your own?
I love that bit because I really believe in it. I think people have hidden talents they don’t often even see in themselves. That’s the good thing about shows like Strictly Come Dancing: You get people like footballers and newsmen who all try to dance and, my god, they get better at it and suddenly realize they can move a bit! I love drawing and making things with my hands. In my dressing room when I’m waiting to go on I’m sitting there knitting like a lovely old grandmother, which I am [to six- and seven-year-old granddaughters]. It’s lovely because it grows in front of your eyes and calms your nerves. I’ve also done quite a lot of travel documentaries lately because travel is one of my greatest passions. Last year I traveled down the Nile starting in Egypt. Then we came through Sudan, then Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. Some of it was really rough camping. I’m quite a tough old outdoor creature though. Last year I went to about 19 countries filming.
Sounds very unlike your Princess character. How did you get involved in narrating adventure shows?
Darling, they crawl up to my door!
See Joanna Lumley in La Bete at the Music Box Theatre.