The Beaux Stratagem
by George Farquhar
Additional Dramaturgy by Patrick Marber & Simon Godwin
Directed by Simon Godwin
Designer Lizzie Clachan
Music by Michael Bruce
The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
Tuesday 23rd June 2015, 19.30
The play is one of the last restoration comedies, written in 1707, and already pointing towards the more sophisticated comedies of the18th century. It was also Farquhar’s last play.
Aimwell and Archer are a pair of London beaus, who have run out of money and are in the provinces seeking rich wives. They turn up in Lichfield at the local inn. The inn, run by Boniface and his daughter, Cherry, is a den of highwaymen, and the landlord is in league with them. He suspects Aimwell and Archer of being highwaymen too because they pretend to have a box full of cash. The lads are taking it in turns to act out master and servant, and it’s Archer’s turn to pretend to be the servant.
Squire Sullen is the local drunk and a very drunken drunk at that. He has recently married Mrs Sullen, a beautiful and sophisticated London lady. They loathe each other. They reside with his mum, Lady Bountiful, a purveyor of herbal medicines. Sullen’s sister Dorinda is the eligible heiress. They are served by their butler, Scrub, who gets involved in most of the plots, being in love with the ladies’ maid, Gypsy.
The inn also has a French count and his chaplain staying there, though the chaplain is an Irishman pretending to be French. The count is intent on wooing Mrs Sullen, as is Archer. Mrs Sullen is willingly wooed. Aimwell has his sights set on Dorinda.
The highwaymen are planning to rob the house. Mayhem ensues at night. Lots of running up and down, tying up bandits, hugs and stolen kisses. Happy ending, very surprisingly with Mrs Sullen divorcing her oafish husband. Just about possible in 1707, though there had only been one successful case.
The set: we never saw any of this from our position facing the side of the stairs on the right. I didn’t even know it was green.
I have always said every seat at the Olivier has good vision and sound. Wrong today.We were in Row H, at the side on Aisle 1 … though the furthest to the centre in the side section, by the concrete section edge. The set design was weird. OK, just wrong. Instead of being squared to the centre of the auditorium, it is squared to Stage right and the stage right half. From extreme Stage Left you are looking at the side of the set. We also lost a lot of lines where actors had their backs to us. Fortunately, the star of the show (and she really is) is Susannah Fielding and she delivered most speeches in our direction and she also has crystal clear delivery. We both thought the set positioning in relation to the audience totally wrong-headed. It accentuated another issue. This is a 1707 play. The huge Olivier Theatre dwarfs it, which means a directorial tendency to have extras running around to little purpose to fill it. Having seen so much at the Wanamaker, the contrast becomes massive. You don’t need that huge space, when the comedy is often two way or three way dialogue. In fact, the stage size is a barrier, pulling the actors apart. The set itself has the advantage of levels, and without a revolve transforms very easily from inn to Lady Bountiful’s house (with everyone going on and off doing a little bit). That aspect was good, but we only saw the side, which was the stairs side. One review complains the set is unlucky green. We couldn’t even see the colour.
Count Bellair & Mrs Sullen
Mrs Sullen is a part so good and so “modern” that it must be the reason for reviving the play. Her lines are vibrant on the page, and take off with an actress as accomplished and lovely as Susannah Fielding. My companion remembers once doing Mrs Sullen as an audition piece, which is why I suppose we have a copy. One of the funniest scenes in the play is when a countrywoman turns up, seeking a remedy from Lady Bountiful for her husband’s sore leg. She meets Mrs Sullen first, who reveals her loathing of husbands as a breed with her suggested remedies. Lady Bountiful looked wonderful with her sculpted hair, and we’d have liked rather more of her than the script gave us. The herbalist / amateur physician (powdered sugar for a bleeding arm) is interesting for 1707. It was only a few decades earlier that women proffering herbal remedies were seen as witches. Clearly no longer in Farquhar’s England.
The bigger a part was played the better. Gibbet the Highwayman’s first appearance was memorable because he produced booty from all over himself like a magician. Really well done. Naming his assistants in crime Hounslow and Bagshot is so intrinsically funny now that I had to check the script: it was funny in 1707 too.
Archer and Scrub the Butler (in red)
Pearce Quigley as Scrub, the Sullens’ butler, is simply the best comic servant you can put on a stage. His laconic delivery makes every line funny. It’s an important role in the play too, culminating in taking Mrs Sullen’s place hiding under the covers in bed when the highwayman arrives.
Count Bellair was delightfully and forcefully Gallic every time he appeared. On accents, we never really got why his chaplain was comic French veering into comic Irish. Hard to pull off, harder to comprehend at the angle, to the point where Farquhar’s plot reason was unclear for having an Irishman posing as French – though I guess the discovery of his Irish origin, so treachery, allowed Aimwell to blackmail him into marrying him to Dorinda.
Dorinda and Mrs Sullen
The Beaus, Aimwell and Archer, are classic roles, and both were well taken. Archer, posing as Aimwell’s servant, is the bigger role and done with force and clarity. They worked superbly as a double act.
Music was notable, with an Irish air, and at several points musicians appeared on high on the set and thus “forced” a character to sing. Archer got a guitarist. Count Bellair got an accordionist dressed in striped jersey and beret and got instant applause at the end of his song.
Reviews tend to four star, though The Telegraph gave a three, saying a romp needs to be “rompier.” We felt just the same. With such a first-rate cast, all performing so well, you’d expect an easy four star. But it wasn’t for either of us. There was a click, a pace, an interactive buzz that just wasn’t quite there. Partly it’s the play … Farquhar creaks a tad, and indeed seems forced, as we found with The Recruiting Officer. It is also partly direction … the director’s Two Gentlemen of Verona at the RSC also failed to click for us in just the same way. There were five minutes here and there where I was actually bored. I wish I could define it, but with comedy, you’ve either got the directorial timing, or you haven’t. Which is why the play shone in the bits where Mrs Sullen, Scrub, Count Bellair, Archer, Gibbet were given space to do their thing, because all the actors are totally capable and have natural comic timing. But it’s not enough. It has to run through the whole and all the parts all the time. The highs were solo pieces, not interaction.
We both felt extremely short changed by the way the set was angled. It was simply incompetent set design. Don’t directors and designers ever walk around and watch from different angles?
Four stars for acting, and for costume design.
Three stars for direction.
One star for set design.
Our angle on the set (phone image before the start)
In a new low for audience etiquette the man in the row behind took off his shoes and put his smelly feet up on the concrete side, inches from my companion’s head. He’d whacked me heavily on the head with his backpack on the way in too, without apology.
The National Theatre’s boast that it has the best programmes in London is repeated all over the theatre. No. Not at all. You do not print in tiny text on pink and mauve paper when one of the most common reading places is in the dim theatre before it starts. Also it has a high guff count around the essays. Nowhere near Globe / Wanamaker standards.
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