Any play where the characters scheme and plot to win better lives in London is sure to go down well here and this juicy revival of The Beaux’ Stratagem is a joy from start to finish. Quality control at the National Theatre seems to be rather haphazard at the moment; after more than a year of indifferent productions, in the space of a few months there’s been some real highs – Man and Superman as well as this version of The Beaux Stratagem – tempered with a very poor such as Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, along with perfectly ok but not ground breaking shows like Rules for Living. While their production values can never be faulted, the rest is swings and roundabouts. What the National needs right now is consistency in order to regain some of its former glory.
Happily, there is a common factor in their two recent success, both were directed by Simon Goodwin who turns his hand to George Farquhar’s fun restoration comedy, injecting its long running time with the same verve and pacey feeling that he gave to Man and Superman. It is something of a skill to make the plot skip along so merrily that an audience could quite happily forget the interval and for the second time in one of Goodwin’s productions I could easily have digested the whole thing in one go.
As with many a restoration comedy the plot is a fairly complex farce involving secret identities, deception and more than a little bawdy humour. Two penniless young gentleman (Aimwell and Archer) arrive in Lichfield and take up residence at a local Inn pretending to be master and servant. Their purpose is to convince some hapless heiress to marry one of them and if they fail they’ll move on to the next town and change roles. Aimwell poses as his own brother (a Lord) and at church falls for the beautiful Dorinda. Meanwhile Dorinda lives with Mr and Mrs Sullen who are unhappily married; he is landlord of the inn and spends all his time drinking the profits, while Mrs Sullen is a vibrant young woman railing against the constrains of a forced marriage until she begins to fall for Archer, who she has realised is no man-servant, but meanwhile she is being pursued by an ardent French captain. But Archer, returning her affections, has already begun an intrigue with the inn-keeper’s daughter. Running parallel to this, the inn-keeper Boniface suspects the two gentlemen are not what they seem and joins up with local ne’re-do-well and highwayman Gibbet to expose them and create a new life by robbing the Sullens. Got all of that?
The National’s vibrant production is aided by a clever piece of set design and a group of beautifully judged performances that make it easy to keep track of the complex entanglements. Lizzie Clachlan has design a set on three levels which gives a good view to those in the Olivier circle as well as the stalls, swiftly changing between the inn and the Sullen’s home using some neat sliding panels and different lighting dropped into place. The furniture is changed by the actors so the constant back and forth feels smooth and natural which is crucial in keeping the audience engaged throughout and for maintaining the growing tension as the farce peaks. As Farquhar himself concedes this is a proper plot because it contains a ‘priest and a woman’, not to mention a few digs at the French which still delight an English audience even 300 years later.
The performances are all excellent and really help bring these knotty intrigues to life, as well as giving the whole piece a joyful and exuberant feel. It always adds something when you get the sense that the actors are having a great time and really enhances the badinage. It is interesting to see the difference good direction makes and Simon Goodwin clearly has quite a knack of making these complex dramas feel bouncy and vibrant, maximising the humour but still making the characters seem entirely human, and at times quite empathetic. Greg Doran at the RSC actually has quite a similar skill, giving both the recent Richard II and particularly Hamlet with David Tennant an edge-of-your-seat thriller-like feel which gave fresh intensity to a well-worn classic – but more on that, no doubt, in August when we come to discuss Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.
Back to The Beaux’ Stratagem and Susannah Fielding leads the way with a complex and sympathetic Mrs Sullen, who though restricted by her sex and class feels like a very modern and proactive woman. Eager to shakes off the strictures of her disappointing marriage Fielding gives us a highly intelligent woman whose detachment thaws as she falls in love, playing both the cheeky humour and moments of pathos perfectly. Geoffrey Streatfeild is a great match for her as Archer, charming almost all the ladies in the play as well as winning round the audience. His double act with Samuel Barnett’s Aimwell is nicely played as they scheme and plot to win their ladies, while Streatfeild proves as adept at the play’s physical comedy moments as he is believable during the romantic shenanigans, and it is a delightful performance.
Barnett and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Aimwell and Dorinda have somewhat less to do than the central lovers but deliver equally engaging performances that also have modern resonances. Among the tavern folk and servants, Pearce Quigley stands-out as the dry Scrub, part-time butler to the Sullens and he steals many a scene with his exquisite comic timing. Amy Morgan as the inn-keepers daughter Cherry, Archer’s initial amour, gives a feisty performance and as with the other female roles is unwilling to allow any man to determine her life, disobeying her father, Gibbet and maintaining her chastity with Archer. The strength of the female characters comes across really well here and for those unfamiliar with restoration drama, Goodwin’s ability to balance the near original text with this more contemporary feel should be enough to tempt you.
One slightly overlooked aspect in many reviews in the reinforcement of class divisions in these plays. Despite Archer and Cherry’s mutual attraction in the early part of the play Farquhar casts that aside somewhat as the romantic and monetary dramas of the gentle-folk takes precedence, and Cherry’s later scenes are almost entirely among her own people in the tavern. Similarly Archer falling for Mrs Sullen while posing as Aimwell’s manservant is allowable because she sees through the disguise and recognises him for a gentleman. To some extent these elements are left unresolved in a way that a modern dramatist would probably try to tidy up, but it’s interesting to observe how contemporary audiences for this play would have expected the outcome to maintain propriety in class associations.
When the National Theatre gets it right, it really gets it right. The Beaux’ Stratagem is a delight from start to finish and with the Travelex season offering £15 tickets a good value summer outing. Since the great press reviews, tickets are being snapped up fast but I got a very front row £15 seat about 10 days in advance so keep looking as the National may not release those tickets until closer to the time. As Farquhar explained this is a proper plot because it contains a ‘woman and a priest’ but it also has a great deal more to offer; it is absolutely delightful and a highly recommended summer treat.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is at the National Theatre until 20th September, tickets start at £15. There will also be an NT Live cinema screening on 6th September if you can’t make it to London. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1