Tag Archives: Simon Goodwin

The Beaux’ Stratagem – National Theatre

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

Man and Superman – National Theatre

Happiness is something we’re all looking for, and whatever that means to you, it can be a lifelong pursuit. Whether it be a certain type of luxury, a happy family or just freedom to be yourself, almost everyone will have a dream or goal to work towards. But what if we’ve got this all wrong and the years or decades spent hoping for more are wasted? According to Shaw’s controversial hero Jack Tanner, while we’re all dreaming our lives away, life – the very excitement of just existing and experiencing the here and now – is passing us by.

Despite being more than a century old, this revival of Man and Superman feels extremely pertinent – tapping into questions that are still troubling us now. Many of these are concerned with society’s expectations of the life we should lead and of the characteristics of men and women. As the play opens Jack Tanner is a celebrity, famed for writing a radical book which has set him politically at odds with acquaintance Roebuck Ramsden. Part of his philosophy is that marriage is pointless, a façade for indignity and something women force on men to preserve the biological need to repopulate. Yet when his good friend dies, Jack is appointed co-guardian of Ann who had manipulated her father into the appointment with her own designs to marry Jack. Learning of this plan Jack runs off to Spain with Ann in pursuit and attempts to retain his freedom.

At around 3.5 hours this is a monster of a show and includes the often excluded third Act concerning Jack’s philosophical dream set in hell. Yet this fascinating production zips along and when the interval arrives at around an hour and 45 minutes, I could easily have stayed there and watched it to the end without a break – crazy but true! Admittedly, at times, it’s not an easy thing to watch and with our twenty-first century eyes some of the attitudes about and of the women will certainly jar. Having a central character whose only wish is to be married and conducts a campaign of lies, deceits and manipulation to get what she wants isn’t going to win over modern female audience members.

Yet, beneath the surface, there are also many aspects of Man and Superman that positively reinforce the role of strong and independent-minded women. First, this play is over a hundred years old so at that time to have a character like Ann appear on stage at all was a radical move – yes she is driven by marriage, but one of her choosing to a man who will be her sparring equal, instead of the weak young man Octavius who follows her about. She controls the action of this play, outsmarting and outwitting all the men and can be seen as the basis of many of the strong female characters that followed her. Second, this is a comedy and much like Oscar Wilde’s characters, this production encourages the audience to view everyone, and particularly Jack as rather ludicrous, thus his views can also be seen in this light. Here is a silly man and the scrapes he gets into with a set of silly people presented entirely for our amusement.

By giving this a modern setting, director Simon Godwin and designer Christopher Oram are asking the audience to think about some of the points Shaw raises and how far we have really come in the last century. Jack may applaud the idea of babies being born outside of marriage or not being born at all, but today how often are women in their 30s asked when they plan to marry and have children – it is a pressure society and the media still exerts on unmarried women who have chosen a path other than having families. Rather than seeming old fashioned, watching this production of Man and Superman showed me that Shaw was actually imagining a society that is still some years away from really existing.

Absolutely central to this production is Ralph Fiennes’s performance as Jack which balances a wonderful comic timing with the world-weary philosophising Tanner indulges in during his long speeches. Fiennes is an actor I would happily watch read the phonebook so his almost permanent appearance on stage for 3.5 hours is joy from start to finish. It is only since the Grand Budapest Hotel that the actor has been lauded for this comedic skill, but this comes as no surprise to anyone who had seen In Bruges or his stage work including God of Carnage a few years ago. Many will only know him from Harry Potter and Bond which Fiennes recently explained has given him the financial freedom to do more theatre and will head to the Old Vic next year for The Master Builder. But his performance here is at its best during the longer speeches where he is able to build momentum and tension to create a climactic moment – and this is a skill you see in his earlier films such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair – where he conveys complex and deeply felt emotion or opinion. Jack may hold some ludicrous views but he is convincing and sympathetic.

Supporting Fiennes is the brilliant Indira Varma as Ann, who is every bit his match and although we see her behave in a way modern women may find uncomfortable, she is also someone to root for – even though you know both she and Jack can’t ultimately have their way. Varma ensures Ann never becomes annoying and it’s fascinating to see her turn arguments and discussions around to suit herself, easily controlling everyone around her. Ann is an interesting collection of contrasts, wanting both so much and so little, and Varma’s verbal duelling with Fiennes will keep you gripped throughout.

There is a fine supporting cast too with Tim McMullen almost stealing the show as the bandit Mendoza that Tanner meets in Spain who by coincidence is in love with the chauffeur’s sister. Nicholas Le Prevost is always a welcome addition to any cast, and here plays Ann’s other disapproving guardian. Christopher Oram’s design is beautiful using digital panels across the back wall to project blurred images of flowers, gardens and organic patterns which look stunning against some of the more traditional sets, and adds emphasis to the way this production cleverly navigates old and new.

Much has been said about the inclusion of the dream sequence set in hell where Tanner in the guise of Don Juan debates the philosophy of life and existence with the devil and companions. Admittedly this is the first time I’ve ever seen Man and Superman so can’t comment on what it would be like without it, but it was fascinating to listen to the debates rage between the characters, and a rare opportunity to sit back and think about what life means. Excluding this from the play would seem to me like cutting out its heart.

Man and Superman is then an absolute triumph for the National Theatre; it is a play that espouses views we may not always agree with but this production offers both plenty to think about as well as much to entertain. It’s never a chore to see Ralph Fiennes on stage and he shines here as Shaw’s radical anti-hero destined to be bumped back to earth. If you’re still searching for happiness, then 3 and half hours in this theatre is an absolute treat and as Jack himself would hope, will make you think about the purpose of life itself.

Man and Superman is at the National Theatre until 17 May with an NT Live broadcast to local cinemas on 14 May at 7pm. Most tickets are sold out, but keep checking the website for returns or book for an NT Live screening. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.

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