Director Dave Hollander introduces his re-imagining of this classic Restoration romp ahead of its opening on 28 May.
There are a lot of restoration comedies – what attracted you to this one?
Most importantly, I find it funny, especially as it doesn’t really rely on visual gags for comic effect. Instead, George Farquhar’s script is full of wit and fizzes with zingy one-liners, and there’s certainly more than a whiff of innuendo and intrigue.
On a more serious note: as a genre, Restoration Comedy covers a 50-year period, over which the style of plays varied considerably. While earlier examples are often characterised by aristocratic characters and bawdy themes, the later ones tend to comment more on society.
First performed in 1707, The Beaux’ Stratagem is definitely in the second camp: its central plot is about a pair of hard-up con-artists, Aimwell and Archer, who travel around the country, trying to marry their way into money. By posing as a well-to-do young gentleman, Aimwell can move freely among the gentrified classes while Archer, pretending to be his valet, can get chummy with the servants. The storyline is occasionally a little convoluted, but it’s basically a romp about a madcap money-making scheme that goes awry.
Do you think there are still themes to resonate with a modern audience?
Love never goes out of fashion, but Farquhar’s attitudes certainly seem refreshingly modern. Here, the institution of marriage is not painted in a particularly good light: while Aimwell is trying to wed Dorinda to obtain her wealth, Mrs Sullen feels trapped, permanently hitched to her mismatched husband. At the time the play was written, divorce was extremely rare and would have led to disgrace for everyone involved. Even without that stigma today, there’s plenty to relate to, especially when love threatens to thwart Aimwell’s scam.
We can see from the poster that you’re not giving the show a restoration period setting – what inspired your choice?
When I reread the play a couple of years ago, the first thing that struck me was the similarity of its charming protagonists to Jack and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest – and the plot reminded me of a Jeeves and Wooster novel.
Unusually, another comedy from the same period had already been programmed for earlier this year (She Ventures and He Wins), so I decided a 1920s update would contrast well with that show’s more traditional approach. As well as Wilde and Wodehouse, we’ve taken style cues from things like Poirot, Upstairs Downstairs and Gosford Park. This brings the play into a more recent era than the early 18th century, but one in which class distinctions and servants still feature – these might be less believable in a modern update.
You’re directing a large cast – what have been the pros and cons of that?
The biggest logistical challenge with a large cast is getting everyone together to rehearse. Arevika, my assistant director, has certainly been a vital part of the process, taking notes while watching the action from a different angle. It’s quite a different challenge from directing a small cast for BU21 last year, but working with a large team to put on a show like this can be just as rewarding: there’s nothing like seeing all the pieces fall into place to produce a richly entertaining result. However, this is very much an ensemble show, with no large backstage team. All the scene changes are performed by the company as part of the onstage action.
Rehearsal photos by Arevika Stepanian
The Beaux’ Stratagem runs from 28 May – 1 June at the Old Fire Station, and tickets are on sale here.