REVIEW | NTL’S THE BEAUX’ STRATAGEM

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By Chaedy Ritherdon

 

Archer and Aimwell have spent all their money  and are approaching destitution. Faced with the unacceptable prospect of having to find a job  or to [gasp] join the army, they connive a dastardly plan to fool rich women into marrying them, whereupon the two of them can return to London to live in luxury.

 

Written by Irish playwright George Farquhar, The Beaux’ Stratagem is exemplary of ‘Restoration comedy’. After eighteen years of Puritan  rule under Cromwell, theatres revelled in their new sense of freedom with comedies featuring overt sexual content – though the prospect of a man and woman openly talking about a sexual liaison may not seem overly risqué to modern audiences.

 

This renaissance of comedy saw the introduction of women on the stage for the first time in the UK. Before Cromwell closed all the theatres, only men were permitted on the stage so Renaissance audiences were thrilled to see men seducing actual women on a stage. It is perhaps for this reason that this play features such interesting female roles.

 

Case in point: Mrs Sullen (played brilliantly by Susannah Fielding). Mrs Sullen is in a loveless marriage; her husband drinks itself into a stupor each night and shows no interest in her at all. Her character is the one living in misery and has an adversity to overcome, unlike Archer and Aimwell who, it could be argued, are facing the music for their own actions. It’s Mrs Sullen’s story that makes The Beaux’ Stratagem so interesting. There are so many stories about women seeking to marry a man and to live happily ever after, and here is a tale of a woman seeking a divorce so that she can live happily ever after without her boorish husband.

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Susannah Fielding as Mrs Sullen. (Manuel Harlan, Sharmill Films)

With Archer and Aimwell, it’s really hard to bond with male protagonists whose goals are thoroughly unlikeable. Thankfully, nothing ever goes according to plan and the absurd obstacles life throws their way is what makes this story worth watching.

 

This is the third National Theatre Live (NTL) production I’ve seen and it’s the first time that I’ve felt something has been lost in the change of medium from theatre to film. The play has fast, snappy dialogue and a liberal amount of physical humour, and while I’m positive that the editor of the NTL production did a stand up job, I can’t help but feel that this production is better in the flesh and hasn’t translated well to cinema format.

 

This isn’t true of all NTL productions; some readers may recall me singing the praises of NTL’s Frankenstein late last year. When viewing The Beaux’ Stratagem, however, there were moments that the audience in the theatre were laughing, but the cinema’s audience was silent. Was there something happening out of shot that gave the comedy context? Is the NTL’s production an example of Walter Benjamin’s theory that mechanical reproduction of art strips an artwork of its “aura” (the ability to inspire awe)? Or is it just that Restoration comedy isn’t my thing?

 

Like all NTL productions, the set, the lighting and the costuming are all superb, and there is a fifteen-minute interval followed by a short documentary. Usually the documentary is about the theatrical production; however, this time it’s about the NTL filmmakers who produce these recordings. If you regularly watch NTL productions, this documentary will give you new appreciation of the skill of the filmmakers that create NTL recordings.

 

If you’re a regular theatre-goer and like overt, physical comedies, then this may be your thing. If you study English literature, this is an excellent way you can see an English performance of a Renaissance production, without forking out the money for a flight to the UK, which is ultimately what all NTL productions are about.

 

National Theatre Live: The Beaux’ Stratagem is now showing at Cinema Nova and the Palace Brighton Bay.


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Director: Simon Godwin
Starring: Samuel Barnett, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Susannah Fielding and Pippa Bennett-Warner

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