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Divorce À La Mode
July/August 2015

Playhouse plotting: Samuel Barnett (left) and Pippa Bennett-Warner in “The Beaux’ Stratagem” (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The Beaux’ Stratagem was written by George Farquhar when he was around 30 and completed in 1707, by which time the playwright was already ill and contemplating his premature death that year. It is a work of transition, with the libidinous longings of the Restoration era shifting towards a quest to combine sensual desires with the more orderly upcoming world of the Hanoverians.

The National loves bawdy English period comedies, but it has sometimes been guilty of loving them in too unvarying a way. The default mode in the past few years has been to play every work to the fortissimo of sexual broadness and lace it all with burlesque music, dance and slapstick. Less awareness has been devoted to the fine grain of the texts and their meanings and allusions.

That is not, however, a complaint that attaches to Simon Godwin’s sparkling interpretation. Our two fortune seekers, Aimwell and Archer (Samuel Barnett and Geoffrey Streatfeild), target a wealthy woman, with the stratagem of marrying her to gain her fortune and splitting the cash — a plot so noirishly heartless that it would make Elmore Leonard blush.

Pippa Bennett-Warner is Dorinda, who becomes the genuine focus of Aimwell’s affections. Her diction and sassy elegance served to remind me of how odd and unnecessary those hoary arguments were about whether black actors should play roles which would have been solely white when created. Susannah Fielding is the disaffected Mrs Sullen, driven to flirtatious strategems of her own by the inattention of her doltish husband (Richard Henders).

The play is best known for its early celebration of the liberating effects of divorce. “Where women rule, should women be enslaved?” gets a little whoop of recognition from the audience, as it doubtless did when Queen Caroline was around.

That grumpy sage Alexander Pope complained of the play’s “pert, low dialogue” and it is true that its vocal register veers rather a lot, which purists will note has been ironed out in this version. Farquhar’s large heart and riotous spirit are gladly intact, though. When one of his cast complained that his plot was a tad too tidy in marrying off the remaining rake, he replied with the teasing suggestion that he marry Mrs Sullen himself, knowing that his terminal illness would mean “that she shall be a real widow within a fortnight”. Farquhar left us a world of frivolity underpinned by lasting insight into the bonds of money and marriage — and proof that the best stratagems usually go awry.

Over at the Almeida, which gave us Robert Icke’s 1984 (now open in the West End), Icke brings an even more radical overhaul to Aeschylus in a freewheeling adaptation of the Oresteia. The trilogy is converted into one great big shebang of death, destruction and madness over three-and-a-half hours — the launchpad of the Islington theatre’s festival of Greek drama. Hildegard Bechtler’s set makes Agamemnon’s household look as if it came off-plan from World of Interiors, with a vast stone bath (handy for murdering your homicidal husband), sliding doors and a long table, at which the actors gather over tense meals to discuss the fate of the unhappiest family in Greek history. The strongest part of this feast of filicide and its consequences is the death of Iphigenia, hauntingly played by the tiny Clara Read. Icke casts the deliberations of Agamemnon (Angus Wright) on whether to deliver his daughter as a blood sacrifice in the calculations of Menelaus, here a chilly political aide. “You’d be putting your country before your family in very real terms,” soothes Menelaus, sounding like early-period Peter Mandelson. The death itself is played as a Dignitas-style dispatch, with the obedient child fed a cocktail of drugs after the legal warnings have been read out in a dirge of fatal drug names. That is Icke’s directing at its urgent best — a gripping, chest-tightening scene that makes us want to cry out and stop the inevitable.

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