The Beaux’ Stratagem: “polished and funny”

By Cameron Yule 

This year’s DST Freshers’ Play, The Beaux’ Stratagem by George Farquhar, proved unintentionally misleading. How so? – because the production did not use – as expected – Farquhar’s text, but an adaptation by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig, which modernises and streamlines the original. On balance, this choice of versions constitutes a savvy move from director Jack Palmer, playing up the play’s comedy and excising some of its more turgid sections. The Wilder/Ludwig adaptation also renders the play more accessible, which is all to the benefit of what is, all in all, an accomplished and assured production. Happily, the freshers seem to be capable of far more than inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.

The adaptation is more crowd-pleasing than the original, never shown more clearly than in the opening scene, where the feckless landlord Boniface (Sammy French) asks the two protagonists, Archer (Jack Firoozan) and Aimwell (Calum MacLean) what they’d like for dinner; whether a directorial touch or part of the adaptation, it’s redolent of both Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch, and through its framing of ‘fricassee rabbit’ (although in Farquhar’s text) of Blackadder Goes Forth and Baldrick’s offer, ‘rat: sauté or fricassee?’

Firoozan is particularly good as the rakish Archer, contrasting a genuine intellect – as seen in his monologue concerning impostors – with an extreme flirtatiousness, a character trait in which he delights, using his wit to charm first Izzy Clarke’s beleaguered Cherry, and later Mrs Sullen (Ellen Tapp). Archer is one of the play’s few characters to show a genuine agency, and Firoozan captures well Archer’s cunning and libertine nature, not to mention his cynical humour, such as his chastisement of Aimwell’s clichéd professions of love.

Indeed, exaggerated character traits seem to be a feature of the adaptation, most hilariously realised by Mungo Russell, whose Sullen is occasionally coherent, exceedingly funny, and entirely inebriated. There is a definite skill here: although an inherently comic figure, a poorly-executed performance would have given Sullen a ridiculous aspect, which -with excellent timing and a terrific upper-class sneer – Russell happily avoids.

Meg Luesley’s Lady Bountiful – the inept doctor – is equally comical, and she clearly revels in her character’s predilection for needless surgery. To use a terrible cliché, Luesley brings a great energy to the production, with her hysterical persona serving not only to invigorate her audience but to stimulate other characters, notably her daughter-in-law, Mrs Sullen, whose sense of perpetual exasperation is conveyed well by Ellen Tapp.

With so many stellar performances it’s impossible to discuss each one in detail, but equally worthy of mention are Lucas Walker’s portrayal of the Revd. Gloss (an amalgam of Farquhar’s characters, Count Bellair and Gibbet the highwayman), whose booming voice gave voice to the hilarious contradiction of Gloss’ life as both criminal and clergy, and Calum MacLean’s Aimwell, who though somewhat overshadowed by Archer, nonetheless enjoys the authority of being Archer’s master, and whose feigned convulsions provide a good laugh.

Not all aspects of the production are so good: the climactic swordfights, rather than the parody as which they are perhaps intended, quickly become tedious; this is, of course, a farce, but it seems it could be done more subtly. The second half of the adaptation was completed by Ludwig after Wilder’s death, and does seem here that some of the original’s (and indeed of Wilder’s first half) nuance has been removed in order to play up the farcical elements; although the weakness of the script isn’t necessarily a production fault, such discretion is so well applied throughout the play that moderating the silliness of some of the later scenes would make the production even more accomplished. And for all that the play revolves around couples, the romance between Dorinda and Aimwell seems rather contrived and passionless, although their somewhat flat marriage scene is livened up by Darrius Thompson’s entertaining cameo as the quipping French parson, Foigard, who repeatedly tries to marry the tepid couple, with limited success.

If then, we are to regard the Freshers’ Play as this cohort’s statement of theatrical intent, we should expect similarly polished productions over the coming years. The Beaux’ Stratagem is by no means perfect, but thanks to some clever directing and its cast’s understanding of comic acting it succeeds in its ambition. There is real talent here both in the conception and the execution, and most importantly, it makes for good entertainment.

Photograph: DST 

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