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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE BEAUX’ STRATAGEM
at the National (Olivier)

INCIPIENT FEMINISM
By ED WILSON

  Geoffrey Streatfeild and Samuel Barnett/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Of all the theatrical genres – tragedy, comedy, etc. – farce may well be the most difficult one for directors and actors to master. The temptation for all concerned is to let the audience know that they are aware of how absurd much of the play is. It is a temptation that must be resisted; in farce, one wink or nod to the audience and the entire enterprise goes out the window. Fortunately this does not happen in the new production of George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National Theatre. Director Simon Godwin and his cast know what they are about: though performing throughout with relish and zest, the performers are always in the moment, believing utterly in their characters’ excesses and whims.

First performed in 1707, the play is set in the town of Lichfield in the Midlands of England, a lengthy coach ride from London. The action alternates between a rundown inn and the spacious home of Lady Bountiful (Jane Booker). The transition from one scene to the other is handled expeditiously with the shifting of a few tables and sliding panels on a three-story façade.

Having squandered a fortune in London, two rakes, Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild), pretending to be a master and his servant, have come to the country hoping to ensnare two rich young ladies they can marry. Soon after their arrival they meet Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner), the daughter of Lady Bountiful, and Mrs. Sullen (Susannah Fielding), who is married to the loutish, officious brother of Dorinda.

Early in the action, Aimwell and Dorinda are attracted to each other, as are Archer and Mrs. Sullen, but it will take a full evening’s worth of twists and turns before they have any hope of getting together. Two thirds of the way through, for example, the innkeeper (Lloyd Hutchinson) and several unsavory colleagues sneak into Lady Bountiful’s house with the purpose of stealing her jewels. Alerted by the innkeeper’s daughter Cherry (Amy Morgan), the robbers’ plans are thwarted by Archer and Aimwell in a classic comic version of a sword fight.

Throughout the play, Farquhar’s comic inventions are in full bloom. Adding to the merriment is the music. From time to time the action is punctuated by musical numbers. At any given moment, a character will indicate, not in so many words, “I feel a song coming on,” whereupon a man with an accordion or a guitar will appear on an upper story and a full-throated dance or vocal number ensues.

For all its comic pleasure, however, The Beaux’ Stratagem turns out to be important in other ways. Historically, the play looks both backward and forward. In England, during the last four decades of the 17th century, virtually the only new theatre produced was restoration comedy. Playwrights such as the two Williams, Wycherley and Congreve, wrote acerbic, satiric pieces aimed exclusively at the nobility and the upper class. By the end of the century, however, theatre, like England itself, had begun to change, and by the middle of the 18th century a genre known as sentimental comedy, appealing to a wider range of social classes, was in full flower. No one marked the change from one genre to another better than Farquhar.

Two examples of his innovations in The Beaux’ Stratagem are Farquhar’s setting and his anticipation of early feminism. The mise en scène in restoration comedy never left the confines of London’s aristocracy. Farquhar, however, knew the rural Midlands, having served there as a recruiting officer. (In fact, he named one of his later plays The Recruiting Officer.) By setting The Beaux’ Stratagem in the country he let a bit of fresh air blow through the English theatre.

More important than the change of locale, however, was his treatment of an impossible marriage. A number of restoration comedies had featured characters in an unhappy marriage, but pretty much left it at that. Farquhar took the subject a step further. Mrs. Sullen is a full-fledged proto feminist. (The character, by the way, has always been the leading female role in the play, and in the case of the current production, actress Susannah Fielding more than meets the challenge in a vibrant, engaging performance.)

In the opening of Part 2 of the production (which corresponds to the beginning of Act 4 in the original), Mrs. Sullen takes center stage and addresses the audience directly. Quoting verbatim from Farquhar’s text, she exhorts her listeners, “In England, a country whose women are its glory, must women be abused? Where women rule, must women be enslaved?” With thoughts of Queen Elizabeth’s 63-year reign and the rising tide of modern feminism, is it any wonder that the audience breaks out in enthusiastic applause?

It is much more than this ringing declaration, however, that sets The Beaux’ Stratagem apart from its predecessors. Mrs. Sullen and Archer have fallen in love; in fact, on one occasion they have come close to consummating their love. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sullen is married to a brutish, loutish drunkard, and at that time in England there was nothing she could do about it; divorce was out of the question. Previous playwrights, admitting that divorce was impossible, had let it go at that. Not Farquhar. Toward the end of the play, by a kind of legerdemain, Mrs. Sullen is proclaimed divorced from her husband and is able to marry Archer. Thus, taking matters in his own hand, Farquhar declared the separation a fait accompli, thereby anticipating English law by a century or two.

It is not for the play’s place in history, however, that audiences at the National are enjoying themselves. It is the evening of pure enjoyment that Godwin and his actors are providing for them. There are times when a well-written farce or comedy interpreted by first-rate performers is just what the doctor ordered.

 


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