The Beaux’ Stratagem

This play by George Farquarson dates from about 1715 and this is a belated review of the NT transmission some time ago. It is one of the funniest plays I’ve seen and full of action and brilliant acting. It is basically about two young men who bow their fortunes in London then flee to LIchfield in search of wealthy heiresses to marry. Characters include the local innkeeper, with links to highwaymen, a French officer with a Jesuit priest whose accent leaps between French and Northern Ireland, a maid on the make and two young women who become the target for our heroes.

It’s full of action and brilliantly acted, and if you like Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, you’ll love it. And there are some great songs at the end, with musicians weaving in and out of the play. I loved it.

But the actress who played Dorrinda, the sister of the local drunk, had me confused for much of the play. she was young, vivacious and funny and was of African descent. I could not figure out who she was or what she was doing in Lichfield at the time. I thought she might be a servant but she was referred to by the drunk’s wife as ‘sister’, and did not act subserviant or take orders from anyone. I was confused, and that confusion made it hard to concentrate on what was a long and fast paced play.

There has been a lot of discussion about colour blindness in theatre, and I support the notion of it. There are a lot of roles, especially modern ones where physical appearance isn’t relevant. But in historical plays, people are cast with respect to their physical characteristics in order to show quickly who they were and their role in the play. The publican was middle aged, grizzled, An officer walked with an air of authority and the highwayman was large and stubbly.  The young lovers were young and attractive. The old woman was of a certain age and none too svelte. The gnomic servant was lean and grey haired. The Merchant of Venice should look Semitic. No one would suggest that any parts should be cast except by actors who looked the part. So why should race be any different?

I recently saw a documentary on the Celtic warrior queen who fought the Romans; she had thick red hair, to show she was a Celt.It’s what we expect. The appearance of an actor is  form of shorthand that sets the scene, helps to contextualise it. Seeing people presenting documentaries on places where they or their ancestors come from, such as Italians touring Italy adds an extra veracity to their story, and also makes it easier for them to engage with locals. Horses for courses.

Here’s a link to the NT site for pics of the play:


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