Divorce À La Mode

Behind the National’s interpretation of The Beaux’ Strategem is a lasting insight into marriage and money

Anne McElvoy

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.

Clytemnestra, played by a lithe Lia Williams, is largely stripped of her monstrosity here, more frustrated powerfrau than vengeful killer. Yet that is also where the tension begins to fray. How can she be one minute resigned to the death and, in the next act, screaming with orgiastic joy in killing her husband? There is a complex algebra to the adaptation of the classics which means they are harder to decipher the more external narratives are foist on the original.

By the time we reach the return of Agamemnon in victory from Troy, too much psychobabble has been loaded onto the plot for comfort and Aeschylus has effectively been sacked in favour of contemporary fixations. “Orestes, honey,” frets Clytemnestra, sounding at times like a Camden mum recommending psychotherapy. The final trial scene undermines Aeschylus’s brilliant coup de theatre in letting Orestes (a pallid Luke Thompson) off, by suggesting that this is the result of gender bias in the courts. It’s all very UK Feminista, but robs the ending of its sense of deliverance and catharsis. What a shame. This Oresteia is a formidable undertaking, approached with verve. But imbued with so many modern concerns, it buckles under the weight.

All round, it is a promising summer for antique Greeks on stage, with a production of Iphigenia in Tauris at the Rose Bankside until July 4. Should you relish some classics al fresco and free during the school holidays, Women of Troy, niftily adapted by Lisa Kuma, is at the Scoop outside City Hall throughout August.

A final batch of high politics, and murderous intent is served up at the Bush Theatre by James Graham, who reinvigorated political theatre with the excellent dissection of minority government in the 1970s, This House.

The Angry Brigade dwells in the same era and dissects the motivations of Britain’s very own Baader-Meinhof tribute band of wannabe terrorists and the Met’s pursuit of them. You can see what attracted Graham to the milieu of plodding policemen engaging with anarchist philosophy, free love and dope-addled reasoning. But the result is heavy-handed and far better re-created in TV’s Life on Mars. The second act, exploring the motivations of the befuddled revolutionaries (played by the same quartet of actors as their police pursuers), is more revelatory, focused on the the inner lives of the characters, as their convictions waver and internal tensions — political, sexual and social — shred their grim unity.

Parallels with the difficulties of dealing with Islamic fundamentalism and its recruitment of the young today are heavily suggested. But the Angry Brigade was too transient a movement to give that a secure foundation. One of its members noted subsequently that it should more properly have been called the “slightly cross brigade”. We leave wondering what all the fuss was about.

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