The Beaux’ Stratagem is ‘a wild comedy of love and cash’ – as the poster says.
Written by George Farquhar in 1707, it’s especially a play about the failures of marriage. Compared to the vast majority of Restoration comedies, the plot is very fluid: the two beaux Aimwell and Archer lack money and decide to leave London to pursue and marry wealthy women in the countryside. The main theme of the unhappy marriage is explored through the brilliant characters of Mr. and Mrs. Sullen, whose misfortunes will be readily exploited by Archer in his own happy ending.
Simon Godwin’s adaptation doesn’t live up to the original, because this production is regrettably dull. Mrs. Sullen – supposed to embody the witty heroine – is more malicious than sharp, and the typical Restoration brilliance of language is lost in favour of an accentuated sentimental tone. Innuendos and sexual interludes, which are given plenty of space, along with an earlier appearance of Lady Bountyful as overprotective mother, work towards a much sought-after hasty sympathy in the audience. Pearce Quigley’s performance as Scrub stands out by effectively captivating the audience’s attention with perfect comic pace.
Lizzie Clachan’s set is beautiful, and quickly catches the attention of the spectator: the vibrant colours of Lady Bountyful’s house clash against the greyish and dark environments of the inn. However, as the play proceeds further, the (inevitable) continuous change between domestic spaces and male territories becomes inconveniently complex.
This production is embellished by beautiful folk music which contributes to a memorable version of the “trifle song” (a treat also for the eyes!) and to create that feeling of togetherness which Restoration audience would so often find at theatre performances.
I do firmly believe that adaptations are vital in ensuring life-long fame to (very) old plays, and that making them attractive to the modern audience is mandatory, yet there are more subtle but nonetheless stronger ways to accomplish that: although The Beaux’ Stratagem isn’t Restoration comedy at its best, the original text is pervaded with a brilliant dramatic rhythm, which is here, unfortunately, sacrificed.
Until 20 September @National Theatre