Olivier, National Theatre, London
A delicious melancholy hangs over Simon Godwin’s splendid new production of George Farquhar’s popular restoration comedy, The Beaux’ Stratagem fully justified in a play by a Northern Irishman exiled to England and a comedy that nonetheless has serious things to say about marriage, divorce and moral values.
Restoration comedies don’t always sit well these days with our populist sensibilities. Modern versions at the NT have often tended to miss the mark as indeed did the RSC’s recent restyling of Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters.
But Godwin plays it traditional, putting faith in Farquhar’s wonderful dialogue which delivers one comic moment after another and with it a show of warm, chuckling humour with considerable resonance for the status of contemporary women in marriage.
At its centre are two `beaux’, Aimwell and Archer, aptly named since the two gentlemen, down on their luck, are determined to escape poverty through strategic seduction of the fairer and, must be, wealthier sex.
In rural Shropshire, Aimwell sets about courtship of Lady Bountiful’s wealthy daughter, Dorinda whilst Archer dallies with her daughter-in-law, Mrs Sullen – `sullen’ because of being trapped in an unhappy marriage with a drunken husband but merry by nature and utterly delightful in the hands of Susannah Fielding. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Archer, too, is a glorious portrait of dissembling male charm. Together, they could surely mature into a partnership that might rival memories of illustrious predecessors such as Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens.
But Godwin’s Beaux Stratagem’ is by no means a limited feast. With Michael Bruce’s haunting folk music – now recalling Ireland, then France – Godwin evokes both madcap and sombre atmospheres with an ensemble alert to not just verbal jokes but spinning turns of speed and subtle reactions. Gorgeous costumes too by Nicky Gillibrand in Lizzie’s Clachan’s versatile old country pub set.
Everyone in Beaux’ Stratagem is somehow on the make – with the possible exception of Lady Bountiful and Dorinda who manages to bring Aimwell to his senses through her honesty.
Godwin’s production also boasts the inclusion of Pearce Quigley who brightened up Shakespeare Globe’s The Changeling with his special form of lugubrious humour. He works wonders here, too, as Scrub, endowing the servant with a slow burn kind of ingenuity and mischief.
A total treat.
The Beaux’ Stratagem runs at the National Theatre to Sept 20, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate June 2015