Imagine an inverted version of Cinderella, in which the heroine is not a passive figure of virtue but a young woman calling the shots. The ugly sisters are two wild women, sexually assertive and on her side. In the Prince Charming role is the familiar two-dimensional love object, except he has to be brought into line before he can claim his happy ending.
It sounds like a piece of feminist revisionism for the #MeToo moment. In fact, it’s the central strand of Hannah Cowley’s comedy The Belle’s Stratagem from 1780. The play premiered 238 years ago and was one of the hits of Covent Garden repertoire for the next two decades. That Cowley is no longer a household name is a story in itself. Taking her cue from George Farquhar’s 1707 rural comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem, Cowley paints a picture of a self-regarding urban elite in an elaborate matrimonial dance. But, where Farquhar had the men running rings around the women in a catalogue of deceit and double-deceit, Cowley’s deceptions are all governed by the women.
Letitia Hardy, the belle of the title, realises the dishy Doricourt, her fiance, has no feelings for her. In a counterintuitive scheme, she opts to turn her behaviour from bad to worse – “to turn his indifference into dislike” – before letting their arranged marriage go ahead. One masked ball and much confusion later, Doricourt finally sees the inner beauty he had missed.
Director Tony Cownie doesn’t so much adapt Cowley’s play as rough it up. He knows he can rely on the playwright’s comic scenarios and the fluidity of her prose, and correctly reasons that it will only take a scattering of vulgar jokes to release her rebellious energy. “I had a very difficult marriage,” deadpans Nicola Roy as the fast-living Mrs Ogle. “You see, I was a Sagittarian and he was an arse.” Cownie’s main change is to switch the action to the Edinburgh New Town of 1788, where the strictures of Presbyterianism are vying with the enlightenment values of the late David Hume and the spirit of the newly arrived Robert Burns. Like Robert McLellan’s The Flouers O’Edinburgh, this version makes light of the Scots-English tensions in a period of upward mobility. In this context, Letitia’s act of self-determination is part of a social reordering. Played by an excellent Angela Hardie, she is wilful, eccentric and in control, always two steps ahead of Angus Miller’s eager-to-please Doricourt.
Aiding her subversive mission are Roy’s Mrs Ogle and Pauline Knowles’s Mrs Racket, a Hinge and Bracket– style double act, one in virulent pink with a towering poodle wig, the other an unapologetic riot of oranges and reds, a contrast to the cool architectural line drawings of Neil Murray’s Georgian set. Somehow, they keep it funny without becoming figures of fun. Their mission to emancipate Helen Mackay’s meek Ayrshire incomer Lady Frances Touchwood is not pantomime villainy but a vital act of female empowerment.
Although the women are at the revolutionary heart of the play, this sparkling ensemble production has hearty comic performances throughout, ranging from Grant O’Rourke as Touchwood’s overbearing husband, a big baby of a man, to Steven McNicoll’s would-be father of the bride, desperately trying to keep up. It’s tremendously entertaining and, after an evening of dressing up and role play, it’s Letitia’s final message that hits home: “I’m a woman, I can be anything.”
- The Belle’s Stratagem is at the Royal Lyceum until 10 March. Box office: 0131-248 4848.