Writer: Hannah Cowley
Adaptation: Tony Cowie
Director: Tony Cowie
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
Originally conceived in the late seventeen hundreds, Hannah Cowley’s The Belle Stratagem is a sublime comedy of manners. Taking every pre- and ill-conceived notion one may have about a woman and giving it a good slap across the chops. Adapted for the Royal Lyceum we are no longer in Drury Lane London, but in New Town Georgian Edinburgh, and all the better for it.
Divided by two primary stories of love, Stratagem has a varied cast of unique players. Our first is of a young well-to-do lassie (Angela Hardie), fallen madly in love with her returning betrothed. His tastes, however, have been spoiled by those most wretched of temptresses: European Women. If she cannot claim his love, she will claim his passionate hatred. Our other tale is that of newly married Lady Touchwood, whose snivelling pathetic husband is terrified of her discovering city life. Stitched together through similar circles, both women become entangled in strategies to open the eyes of the men around them.
The beauty of Stratagem is found in its humour. An equal split between the onstage talent, and the witty adaptation of Tony Cownie. Any who were lucky enough to view a Lyceum’s previous production Thon Man Moliere know of Cownie’s ability to draw the best from his cast. This production’s comedy is derived from so many layers it’s exceptional: physical, lyrical, cultural and moving from outrageously farcical to incredulously subtle. O’Rourke, McNicoll and Nicola Roy thieving the best lines of the night. It is so accessible due to this. Many see a period comedy, written by and about women at the Lyceum as potentially middle class or too clever. This couldn’t be further from the truth; The Belle’s Stratagem is theatre crafted for everyone.
The entire male cast, particularly Richard Conlon, Grant O’Rourke and Steven McNicoll, play at least one character with a whiff of misogyny to them. Yet, we still roar at their performances. This is a mark of irrefutable skill. An ever-present issue, long outstaying its welcome is both the subject of constant ridicule but still highlighted. Stratagem never slams anything into the audiences’ face, instead, it seeks to entertain, providing insight. Its feminine resistance is represented in all forms and across generations. It’s cutting, subversive, and jovial.
There’s something about the Scottish angle which just works for The Belle’s Stratagem. The multitude of dialects heightens the delivery, particularly from Pauline Knowles and Roy. The decision to localise it is genius, never feeling like a cheap ploy even when references are dropped without subtlety. There are enough for locals, tourists and especially history buffs.
The Lyceum brands itself with; ‘Theatre Made in Edinburgh‘, with good reason. The undeniable savvy of creators in this city is something to boast about. It has been over two hundred years and The Belle’s Stratagem is still relevant. Its indirect commentary on the folly of men and the social placement of woman is still needed. One day productions such as this will no longer be written, for all the right reasons. For now, we have pieces like this to laugh, share and enjoy.
Runs until 10 March 2018 | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic