Call me crazy, but if I had to choose one Colm Feore performance to see at the Stratford Festival this season, I’d catch his Archer in The Beaux’ Stratagem.
Feore’s King Lear is no mean feat, for sure, but there is perhaps no Canadian actor living as well-suited for the particular demands of Restoration comedy. His cool, cerebral charm and general sense of insouciance are just right for the period’s plays and certainly for the role of Archer – a “gentleman of broken fortune” who has disguised himself as the footman to his friend Aimwell (Mike Shara), another minor aristocrat who has fallen on hard times.
Archer and Aimwell are the “beaux” – or fops or popinjays or fribbles or any of those lovely, long-lost words once used to describe gadabout gold diggers – in the title of George Farquhar’s 1707 play.
Their stratagem is as follows: To go from town to town in disguise, alternating between the roles of footman and lord – the way Richard Burton and John Neville once alternated between Iago and Othello – until one or the other finds a well-to-do woman to trick into becoming his wife. Then they are to split the proceeds of the mercenary marriage, even-steven.
And if Archer and Aimwell don’t wive it wealthily before their last £200 is spent, they will find the nearest recruiting officer and leave England to fight and die in a foreign war.
In the small town of Lichfeld where the comedy is set, Aimwell quickly spies with his little eye the becoming Dorinda (Bethany Jillard), who is scarcely more romantic than the beaux, given that she’s on the hunt for a title to go with her fortune. Meanwhile, Archer sets his sexual sights on Mrs. Sullen, Dorinda’s sister-in-law, played with placid impertinence by Lucy Peacock. She is married to a drunk and Archer embarks on a quixotic quest to make him a cuckold.
If you believe comedies about shameless sociopaths engaging in sexual competitions only started with Seinfeld, then the plays that filled English stages in the years after the womanizing Charles II took the throne will teach you a thing or two. The Beaux’ Stratagem is the first Restoration comedy to see a stage at the Stratford Festival since 1995, and it’s hard to understand why these plays aren’t produced more; Farquhar’s language is surprisingly straightforward and his sense of humour feels quite contemporary – the play’s title, with its perplexing plural and exasperating apostrophe, is the hardest-to-understand aspect of it.
In truth, The Beaux’ Stratagem really signals the end of Restoration comedy and functions as a bridge to the more sentimental comedies that would dominate the stage in the 18th century. Director Antoni Cimolino ultimately seems more attuned to the sentiment than the cynicism in this play that famously ends with a happy marriage and an even happier divorce.
There’s an overall gentleness and a gentility to the production, well represented by director-of-music-emeritus Berthold Carrière’s harpsichord-heavy score that the actors cheerfully bum-bumma-bum-bum in between scenes as they move the furniture around on Patrick Clark’s handsome set.
There’s no real sense of danger or dirtiness here, even from the lower-class characters: a ruddy-faced rogue of an innkeeper named Boniface (Robert King), his ripe young daughter Cherry (Sara Farb), a servant named Scrub (Gordon S. Miller, channelling Jim Carrey’s physical elasticity – in a good way) and a host of highwaymen.
But a production that initially seems merely charming and perhaps a little comedically comatose becomes genuinely riotous after intermission as the various parties end up at the Sullen household. In particular, the scenes between Feore and Peacock in Mrs. Sullen’s bedchamber pop, showing a couple of wits at the top of their game.
Come to think of it, to many long-time watchers of the Stratford Festival, Cimolino’s instalment as artistic director last year has been a Restoration of sorts, familiar faces and repertoire from the Richard Monette era returning after the civil war of the 2008 triumvirate followed by the tumultuous tenure of Des McAnuff.
There’s certainly a strong sense of tradition in this production, from Peacock returning to the role of Mrs. Sullen 29 years after she first played it at Stratford, to the casting of Martha Henry as her mother-in-law Lady Bountiful.
But tradition doesn’t have to mean a whiff of mothballs: Audiences will get a kick in particular at seeing Henry, celebrating her 40th season at the festival, involved in the bawdiest joke of the production. It involves a cucumber and she’s not making sandwiches. I’ll say no more.