The Beaux' Stratagem
by George Farquhar
The Company They Keep
TLT and her horsepowered coach galloped along after a last-minute online seat booking to the South Bank for The Beaux' Stratagem, a bold comedy of 1707.
It’s the usual round of Restoration stock characters. Two wastrels, one Tom the brother of a Viscount Aimwell (Samuel Barnett), the other, Frank Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a gentleman masquerading as his man servant, have quickly gone through their fortunes in London. Now they seek to woo and win wealthy wives in the Staffordshire cathedral city and coaching hub of Lichfield to replenish their income and return to their dissolute ways.
Yet these highwaymen of love are matched by the hostelry where they take rooms. The landlord Boniface (Lloyd Hutchinson) and his buxom daughter Cherry (Amy Morgan) act as fences for a gang of real highwaymen headed by Gibbet (a striking performance by Chook Sibtain).
The landlord of the landlord (are you keeping up?), the local squire Mr Sullen (Richard Henders) is unhappily married to – er – Mrs Sullen - (Susannah Fielding), targetted by Mr Archer, and has a single half sister Dorinda (a winsome Pippa Bennett-Warner), love interest for Tom Aimwell.
Squire Sullen and Dorinda share the same mother, herbalist healer widow Lady Bountiful (Jane Booker) with whom son, single daughter and chafing-at-the-bit daughter-in-law all live. Oh yes, and there’s a French Count (Timothy Watson) and a supposedly Belgian priest with an Irish tang (Jamie Beamish).
According to advance publicity, director Simon Godwin says Northern Ireland-born George Farquhar, the son of a Protestant clergyman, was a feminist.
Awww, according to online biographies (and The National Theatre’s programme), Farquhar had a father, but no mother. So we are lucky he felt so deeply about women to include them, even by name, in his plays ...!!!
But something else struck TLT and her four-wheeled cabriolet watching this version of The Beaux' Stratagem dramaturged by Simon Godwin and playwright Patrick Marber. While marriage conditions and family (rather than purely wifely) settlements were raised above the parapet in the script, life seemed to be organised into companies, regiments, gangs, as well as families.
So it came as no surprise, looking up afterwards John Vanburgh’s earlier play The Relapse mentioned in The Beaux' Stratagem, to discover London theatre had been riven by a chaotic rivalry between two theatre companies.
There was the officially sanctioned patentee, the “United Company” and then a breakaway actors’ company protesting against their “enslavement” by the former, each appealing to the Lord Chamberlain (later also to become the theatre censor) .
Actors were even said to be “seduced” (the legal term) from one company to another, with thespians brought in from Ireland to make up the dearth of actors in the United Company.
Divorce business-wise seemed to be in the air and political marriage also with the Act Of Union between England and Scotland.
So the final arrangements for the marriage of Tom and Dorinda and Mrs Sullen’s separation from her ill-matched spouse, while maybe hearking back to 17th century pamphleteering about divorce, could equally gesture perhaps towards other issues, theatrical and political, with lawyers' meddling still relevant?
This production is costumed with Hogarthian relish and carefully designed with a three-floor set (designer Lizzie Clachlan) serving as inn and transforming into Lady Bountiful’s home, with lowered chandeliers, paintings, mirrors, flowers, red velvet drapes and sliding wallpaper panels.
A band of musicians smooth the transitions, not only with music of the time but glancing at other styles, all of which work well (music: Michael Bruce). The scenes are carefully choreographed with clean and sharp action cut into resonant Hogarthian tableaux.
Yet the attention to elegant silhouetted detail also can hamper the energy of the piece, making it seem a tad lengthy and sometimes repetitive. Meanwhile a scene with muskets doesn’t have the visceral impact, one might expect. The descent into darker issues with accompanying lighting (lighting designer: Jon Clark) equally so.
It’s the earthier characters who tend to stick in the mind such as Scrub the servant (a lugubrious Pearce Quigley) who terms himself the “butler” and a “perfect slave” as he attempts (in the sense of “lead away”) to seduce Frank Archer in the wine cellar.
All in all, much for an audience to enjoy but maybe this production doesn’t quite have the muscle and the spontaneous drive to take by surprise. An amber light.