George Farquhar’s early 18th century comedy “The Beaux’ Strategem” becomes a delightful romp in the National Theatre’s clever, eye-catching new production. The play, set in 1707 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, was far ahead of its time in the author’s sensibility toward the lives of women, specifically in its dealing with the concept of divorce.
Under the direction of Simon Godwin, abetted by Lizzie Clachan’s versatile set design in which the often raucous and quite hilarious farcical action unfolds, the excellent cast interprets Farquhar’s pointed observations with consistent brio. The result is a staging that is a pleasure to watch and a feather in the National’s cap.
The complicated plot is highlighted by the role of Mrs. Sullen, splendidly brought to life by Susannah Fielding, who is married to the boring Mr. Sullen (Richard Henders), the son of Lady Bountiful, a colorful country gentlewoman role, admirably fulfilled by Jane Booker with all of the flourish that the name suggests.
The Sullen marriage is an unhappy one, but a breakup has a major economic problem in the conventions of the time. A woman leaving her husband must also leave her worldly goods to him. Farquhar has concocted a mix of plot twists to smartly address the situation.
Samuel Barnett as Aimwell and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer arrive in town as master and servant, each in search of a well-fixed woman to marry. Archer is attracted to Mrs. Sullen, and she to him. Aimwell and Lady Bountiful’s daughter Dorinda (Pippa-Bennett-Warner), Mrs. Sullen’s sister-in-law, become the other romantic couple.
The play abounds with amusing characters, including Lloyd Hutchinson as Boniface, the landlord of the inn where much of the action occurs, and Amy Morgan as his free-spirited daughter Cherry. We meet Gibbet (Chook Sibtain), a highwayman, and his companions, Hounslow (Mark Rose) and Bagshot (Esh Alladi), as well a Foigard, a pretentious priest (Jamie Beamish).
The rogue-populated production is enlivened by fights, domestic maneuvering, bursts of dancing and a general atmosphere of posturing and mayhem, all built around the central woman, Mrs. Sullen, who stands for liberation in the context of the time. Without awkward attempts to make the comedy and its farcical aspects contemporary, Godwin’s direction nevertheless achieves a link between the 18th century and modern sensibilities by what he chooses to emphasize and by the knowing thrusts of the entertaining performances.
Welcome meaningfulness aside, this fresh staging in itself offers a rollicking good time. At the Olivier Theatre, London. Reviewed August 7, 2015.