Tuesday, February 23, 2021

THE BELLE’S STRATAGEM (Red Bull Theater)****


By Emma

Link: https://www.redbulltheater.com/the-belles-stratagem

Available until: Friday 7pm EST or Friday/Saturday midnight in the UK

A lot of people criticise Shakespeare because he hasn’t written many good roles for women. I think they are totally wrong because what about Desdemona? What about Lady Macbeth? What about Viola? There might be a lot more male roles than female roles but I don’t think Shakespeare has presented women too badly really and they’re definitely not all the same.

But I think the people who criticise Shakespeare would love The Belle’s Stratagem. It was written nearly 200 years later and it is not really very Shakespearean but it is all sort of classical and elegant and very different from plays now.

There is so much here to make a feminist happy. It was written by a woman, Hannah Cowley, who saw a play at the theatre, decided she could write a better one and did. David Garrick loved her (as a playwright I mean, there wasn’t anything going on between them). Richard Sheridan, who also wrote comedies, was less keen. But which one of them ended up having a theatre named after them?

In 1780 (after a great big public ‘paper war’ with another playwright called Hannah More, which I’m sure Hannah Cowley would have won because she’s so clever with words), Hannah Cowley wrote this play which is seen as her masterpiece. The male characters do outnumber the female characters – there are five women and eight main male characters (along with some other small male roles) but they are all strong, interesting, and more intelligent than the men.

The play was also enjoyed by women. Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, is said to have loved The Belle’s Stratagem so much, she asked for it to be performed for the Royal Family every year. I’ve always thought she was intelligent but maybe that’s just because I like Helen Mirren. But I think it’s great that a woman from Germany can enjoy a play that’s not just very British but a comedy. I’m not saying Germans have no sense of humour but different countries have a different sense of humour so they don’t always get each other’s jokes.

I think Queen Charlotte knows what she’s talking about because this play is brilliant! Hannah Cowley’s script is really witty. She has lots of really funny characters but one thing she does which I really like (and which that mean Richard Sheridan doesn’t do) is she makes all her characters into real people. They aren’t just funny caricatures spouting out funny lines. They say funny lines and do clever things but they are real people with real emotions.

The first plot is based around Letitia, who has been engaged to Dorincourt since forever but they haven’t met since they were kids. She falls in love the minute she sees him but he doesn’t seem too bothered about her. Letitia decides to set up a really clever and complicated plan which starts with a bit of ‘treat him mean to keep him keen’ and finishes with a very interesting party. The second plot is based around Lady Frances, who has recently married Sir George. She’s a country girl who’s made friends with some town girls and Sir George is terrified they’ll corrupt her. His fears are quite reasonable actually.

Lilli Cooper sparkles as Letitia and she has a gorgeous singing voice. I’m sure the song was Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’. So there you are, the soundtrack is by another intelligent woman! Dorincourt is a bit of an idiot but Santino Fontana emphasises this so he ends up seeming quite sweet. Peter Jay Fernandez is lovely as Letitia’s dad Old Hardy. I thought he was a bit of a knowitall at first but a lot of the time he’s really kind and bewildered.

Jasmine Batchelor is great as Lady Frances. She starts off as being innocent and naïve but she changes as she goes through the play. Sir George isn’t the nicest guy - he married her especially so he could feel superior to her - but Chauncy Thomas does give hints of genuine anxiety so you actually sympathise with him a bit when you’re not laughing at him.

Heather Alicia Simms is full of personality as Mrs Racket who is very inquisitive and kind of gently insinuating. Lauren Karaman is very funny as the gossipy Miss Ogle and the streetwise if not completely respectable Kitty. Flutter (if Shakespeare was still alive, he’d be mad he didn’t think of that name) and Courtall are played by Aaron Krohn and Mark Bedard and they both have moments where they have to tell stories and they’re both brilliant at imitating people.

It’ll only be available for a few days but it’s so funny and so worth watching.

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