The Belle's Stratagem

Writer and director Tony Cownie has established a particular niche at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, taking potentially overlooked 18th century comedies (like Carlo Goldoni's The Venetian Twins) or modern works inspired by them (Liz Lochhead’s Thon Man Moliere) and giving them a distinctly Scottish twist. There are therefore few surprises in the staging of The Belle’s Stratagem, a comedy of manners – first performed in 1780 – written by the trailblazing, yet now largely overlooked, Hannah Cowley.

the play’s focus on women surviving in a male-centred world.

Cowley must rank among the earliest women to write for the British stage, so it’s hardly surprising that Cownie retains – arguably sharpens – the play’s focus on women surviving in a male-centred world. At the heart of the action are Letitia Hardy and Doricourt, a young couple betrothed since childhood, who are now expected to marry. Just back from his Grand Tour of Europe, however, Doricourt finds Scottish women pale when compared to their European peers, and is totally unimpressed by Letitia. Outraged by such “indifference”, she schemes to subtly seduce the man after first driving him to hate her.

Plenty of Cownie’s writerly and directorial tropes are on display here: not least Neil Murray’s colourful costumes, which are deliberately contrasted against his singularly two-dimensional, monochromatic settings based on period engravings. Cownie also gives the dialogue an invigorating brush-up into a more local (and, at times, distinctly modern) style, so that the whole play genuinely totters on the edge of Pantomime. (There’s even the sight of Steven McNicoll, as Letitia’s father Provost Hardy, doing a turn as dame when allegedly “disguised” as a woman during the all-important masked ball that is the heart of the second half.)

There are definite opportunities, therefore, for some cast members to play to the back of the stalls, not least Richard Conlon as the misogynistic Courtall who, in a disappointing example of directorial restraint, isn’t given a moustache to twirl. That said, his character’s scheme – to seduce innocent Lady Frances Touchwood, recently married and new to Edinburgh High Society – brings us to an arguably more interesting subplot in which merry widows Mrs Racket and Mrs Ogle (a delightful Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy) encourage Frances out from the stifling protectiveness of her man-child husband Sir George (a brilliant Grant O’Rourke).

Angela Hardie and Angus Miller give some genuine depths to the relatively “straight” roles of Letitia and Doricourt, but there are plenty of delicious characterisations to enjoy around them, not least John Ramage’s gossip-obsessed journalist Flutter and McNicoll’s wheezing, dandruff-covered servant. Importantly, though, Cownie as director ensures that his ensemble nevertheless works well together, with the whole production remaining larger than the sum of its parts. Familiar in many respects, but fun nonetheless.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

“All I know is, whatever we do, it must be twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily that’s not difficult.”

We find ourselves in Georgian Edinburgh where the elegant New Town is springing up all around, and the newly opened Assembly Rooms are the centre of social life and romantic intrigue. Despite being betrothed to him since birth, Letitia Hardy finds herself out of favour with the charming and arrogant Doricourt upon his return from Europe, as he declares that continental woman are so much more sophisticated than "dull Scottish lassies".

Determined not to marry without love, Letitia formulates a hilarious plan to capture his attention: behave so badly that he calls off the wedding, and then seduce him in disguise! Meanwhile, Doricourt’s close friend Sir George has a beautiful new wife, the country-born Lady Frances. Escaping his overprotective gaze for an afternoon, she draws the attention of the rake, Courtall, who vows to seduce her.

A witty riposte to Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, Hannah Cowley’s rediscovered gem turns the tables on the farcical goings-on and has the women coming out on top. As well as transposing this restoration comedy from London to Edinburgh, Tony Cownie’s adaptation will have all the wit, mischief and sumptuous design which audiences have come to expect from his ebullient recent productions at The Lyceum, The Venetian Twins and Thon Man Moliere.

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