To judge from the publicity for the National Theatre’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, and indeed, from the first scene of the play itself, you might be forgiven for thinking that the main characters are the rakish ne’er-do-wells Thomas Aimwell and Frank Archer, who have spent their fortunes in London and are thus off to the country to find themselves an heiress and divide her fortune between them. Standard stuff of Restoration comedy so far. Samuel Barnett plays Aimwell, the impoverishred younger brother of a viscount, easily besotted but determined to make a go at being mercenary; Geoffrey Streatfeild's Archer, who is posing as Aimwell’s servant (this time ‘round, he is careful to note: in the next town— which they never reach— they will switch places), is the more skilled heartbreaker, more devoutly fixed on making money.
But while Aimwell and Archer drive the plot (amazingly, Aimwell’s efforts to callously marry the lovely Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) for her money don’t go quite as planned), director Simon Godwin firmly places the play’s heart in the hands of Susannah Fielding as Mistress Sullen. She is the married woman with whom Archer becomes enamored, whose husband’s charming personality is, as is traditional, made quite plain by her married name. Beautiful and clever, her apparently stock-comic desire to commit adultery gradually gives way over the course of the first act to reveal genuine, profound unhappiness.
Often when a director decides to turn a comedy into one character's tragedy, it shakes the entire play out of balance and drags the tone of all the scenes into an unpleasant muddle (Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a common example). But that's in clumsier hands than Godwin's. Fielding anchors the play in humanity (while also being very funny herself), so that the rest of the play can soar off into batty comic delight. It's difficult to talk about the play in much more detail without giving away the wonderful jokes behind the series of musical numbers, Aimwell's newfound martial valor, the deadpan butler who makes friends with Archer while he is disguised as a footman, a suspicious French priest, and the band of highwaymen who nearly derail all of the lovers' plans.
The sheer opulence that the National Theatre's size and budget permits is put to excellent use. There is something, in these cash-strapped days, so delightful about seeing a character who is meant to be a surprise arrival enter and, rather than recognizing him from doubling some early minor role, sharing the characters' surprise. There is gorgeous live music (composed by Michael Bruce, music direction by Richard Hart), lovely costumes (particularly for the beaux, design by Lizzie Clachan), and a detailed but efficient multi-story set.
The Beaux' Stratagem is another perfect example of the comic style I've previously praised in the works of Blanche McIntyre and Adele Thomas, where allowing characters (and especially the female characters) to have true human dignity not only makes the play funnier, but helps create a sense of forward momentum in plays that could very easily descend into giddy, directionless farce-- and in the process, offering a reminder that the concluding marriages and engagements these comedies are about more than just sex. They are symbolic of the genre's promise of renewal, and a reminder that the comic rebirths at the end of these plays are even better when they stem from something worth leaving behind.