A stratagem for comedy

Geoffrey Streatfeild (Archer) and Samuel Barnett (Aimwell). Photo by Manuel Harlan
Geoffrey Streatfeild (Archer) and Samuel Barnett (Aimwell). Photo by Manuel Harlan

The Beaux’ Stratagem, National Theatre Live.

Restoration comedy. It’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? At once very modern and very dated, simultaneously sophisticated and crude. And Simon Godwin’s production of George Farquhar’s play, although fun, is a bit of a funny old thing as well.

Let’s start with the good. The cast are bloody brilliant. There’s not a weak link among them. The plot – such as it is, restoration comedies not being known for their plots – concerns two men of broken fortune, Archer and Aimwell – the Beaux of the title – who arrive in Lichfield seeking to re-make their fortunes by marrying rich women. Their plan, of course, is somewhat confounded when they actually fall in love. As Aimwell, Samuel Barnett is frankly adorable. As the more calculating Archer, Geoffrey Streatfeild is hilariously funny, whether capering about the stage, or simply saying the name ‘Martin’ (you had to be there – it’s a bit complicated to explain), and convincing as both lover and conspirator. I may be adding to my list of theatrical crushes here…

The ladies are every bit their equal – in acting terms, and in the storyline. Pippa Bennett-Warner is a lively Dorinda, and Susannah Fielding gives a beautiful, passionate performance as Archer’s love interest, the unhappily married Mrs Sullen. Despite my above somewhat snooty comments about restoration comedy, Mrs Sullen is a complex and convincing character, by turns despairing, coquettish and noble.

Susannah Fielding (Mrs Sullen) Pippa Bennett-Warner (Dorinda) and Molly Gromadzki (Gipsy). Photo by Manuel Harlan
Susannah Fielding (Mrs Sullen) Pippa Bennett-Warner (Dorinda) and Molly Gromadzki (Gipsy). Photo by Manuel Harlan

Honourable mentions also to Pearce Quigley as deadpan servant Scrub, and Jamie Beamish as ‘French’ priest Foigard, doing what must be the best comic accent(s) seen on the London stage in some time.

So – that’s the good. Now to my problems. Some of these, are to do with the performance space itself. I spent a moderate amount of time in the Olivier Theatre during the decade or so I lived in London, and I’ve always found it a cold space – it seems to be a difficult place for shows to really fly in. This tendency to coldness was exacerbated by some problems with the live broadcast (more on those later). The set, with its’ several layers, seems to make the Olivier stage feel cramped, and means there is rather too much clomping up and down stairs, and the largely manual scene changes in the first half slow down the action too much. It does improve in the second half, when they start using a truck. I guess it was designed to accommodate Farquhar’s many swift entrances and exits, and scene changes, but for me, it doesn’t quite work. I have similar feelings about the folky, Irish tinged music. I really like it, and it certainly livens things up, but I didn’t feel it fitted the play, especially as the male musicians’ costumes looked like they’d been nicked from Mumford & Sons tour wardrobe.

The whole thing also felt frequently gloomy and under-lit. This might be the effect of failing to adapt theatrical lighting sufficiently for the TV broadcast. Talking of which… I did work in TV (in news, if you’re wondering) for a long time (or at least, it felt like a long time) so I may be being too critical, but there were several instances of bad camera wobbles (the worst one in Mrs Sullen’s soliloquy ending the first half) and of cameras re-framing whilst live (a cardinal sin among the TV directors I used to work with). Perhaps, again, this is a problem with the Olivier theatre, or perhaps more cameras would solve the problem – there was also a lack of close-ups, with the tightest shot available seemingly a mid-shot. This is important, because close-ups help to create for the cinema viewer the intimacy that exists naturally if you’re actually in the theatre. Maybe this was an off night for the NT Live team, or perhaps they need to have a chat with the RSC, who seem to have got a better handle on their live broadcasts.

I seem to be ending this on a negative note, which I’m reluctant to do – mostly because I loved the cast so much. It’s a funny old thing, this reviewing business…

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