George Farquhar’s The Beaux' Stratagem is not quite your typical Restoration comedy. While his contemporary William Congreve took the genre to a new level of metropolitan licentiousness, Farquhar headed to the provinces. Though still based around amorous adventures, his later works check their horseplay with a tragicomic seriousness. The Beaux' Stratagem tackles the subject of unhappy unions, ultimately suggesting – to the horror of his contemporaries – that wives should be able to separate from ill-matched husbands. It even cribs from the impeccably high-minded John Milton – far from the sort of writer one would usually link to bawdy frolics.
Simon Godwin has made a name for himself as an attentive classical director, able to inject vitality into the canon. His previous works at the National have flourished through their tight fidelity to the text. Here, unfortunately, he has come a little loose. Whereas Man and Superman earlier this year magnified that play’s cavalcade of wit, this production snips Farquhar’s vitality down. Despite the weighty notes struck regarding love and marriage, we are still very much in the world of exaggerated stock characters and their exuberant hijinks too often feel bloodless.
Some of the blame lies with the stage itself. Although Lizzie Clachan’s many-layered set allows for deft scene transitions, its enormity threatens to muffle and overshadow the cast. This is a play largely composed of small-scale domestic encounters, ones that benefit from physical proximity. Instead, we have intimate conversations played out across vast distances. But Godwin’s uncharacteristic inattentiveness extends into the staging as a whole. A live folk band veers from bluegrass to Celtic to chanson. Several characters feel ill defined: why does his Lady Bountiful throw cruel stares at her daughter-in-law in the first act only to reveal herself entirely sympathetic in the second?
Nevertheless, it’s hard to make a text this sparkling entirely unengaging, and by and large the cast do a fine job of rectifying Godwin’s errors. As Mrs Sullen, Susannah Fielding nails the droll society lady underpinned by inner wounds. Pearce Quigley takes a fantastically deadpan turn as her servant Scrub, and Jane Booker’s Lady Bountiful manages to overcome her direction to give the play its moral heart.
There are some fun trifles. Every time a banjoist appears at the top of the set, characters are forced into reluctant song-and-dance. Things warm up considerably in the second half, where a series of set-piece scenes finally utilise the immense space. And the final indictment of wedlock without consent has undeniable power. This is absolutely a worthwhile night at the theatre, but with stronger direction it could have been something more.