Initially I was somewhat sceptical of seeing The Beaux’ Stratagem; on the surface it looked to be another standard middle-class male hunt for the prettiest and richest bride — cue a slapstick subplot about the baseness of the working class. How delightful it was then to see this production! Although actually befitting the former description, it was rife with genuine humour, contained an unexpected strong and powerful 18th century political message, and danced along to a pleasing folk-inspired score.
The self-aware moments of humour make for a successful delivery of an 18th century farce to a modern audience. Musicians cast knowing glances at the auditorium, comic timing is spot on and allows for breathing room, and the actors, such as Amy Morgan (Cherry), look like they are having thoroughly good time. There is some potential inspiration to be found in the likes of the Carry On movies, particularly when considering characters such as Archer played by Geoffrey Streatfeild. Pearce Quigley’s Scrub has an air of the Baldrick about him that is thankfully not overdone and I believe he won the sympathy of much of the Oliver Theatre’s audience. I laughed out loud on many an occasion, and believe as the cast relax into their lengthy run these occasions will only multiply.
The set, designed by Lizzie Clachan, is fantastic. It is presented proudly and invites you to puzzle out its uses as you wait for curtain up. With an element of the artist Escher about them, the grand staircases and doorways make you believe in the scale of a country inn and home estate. It was completely practical, and allowed for bursts of energy as characters vaulted up steps and gave a busy background as other actors hid away in nooks and wandered around the upper levels. It lent a sense of grandeur in the sheer well-planned nature of its structure; excellent stuff.
The Beaux’ Stratagem was written by George Farquhar, and the historical background on this man in the programme, by academic Michael Cordner, was fascinating. He penned this piece just before death whilst ill and deep in debt, and there is a slight unevenness to the play on either side of the interval that can testify to its writer’s stressful environment. But how amazing to see a play genuinely written in the early 1700s that directly tackles marital issues in a pragmatic way and pits the sexes at each other head on, with no hiding behind metaphor and excuses. For years schoolgirls have cried in outrage as they are made to watch a litany of old world women scrabble to find and please a husband with few exceptions on the curriculum. It would appear that Farquhar was someone different who tested form, pushing sensibilities to their limits. For a wonderful u-turn on what women in bodices can do on the stage, go see this play.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is playing at the National Theatre until 20 September. For tickets and more information, see the National Theatre website.