The Belle’s Stratagem review – a riot of feminist fun

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Tony Cownie roughs up and relocates Hannah Cowley’s 18th-century play, adding vulgar jokes and rebellious energy

Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy in The Belle’s Stratagem.

On a mission to emancipate … Pauline Knowles and Nicola Roy in The Belle’s Stratagem.
Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

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.

Sparkling ensemble … The Belle’s Stratagem.

Sparkling ensemble … The Belle’s Stratagem. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

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.

Gaetano Donizetti opera lost for 200 years set for London premiere

Eight years of detective work will culminate in July’s first performance of ‘amazing’ tragedy by great Italian composer

Lucia Di Lammermoor

Diana Damrau and Charles Castronovo in Royal Opera’s 2016 production of Lucia Di Lammermoor, Donizetti’s best-known work.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton

A lost opera by one of the great Italian composers is to have its world premiere in London almost 180 years after it was written.

Gaetano Donizetti was a leading figure in 19th-century Italian music, along with Giuseppe Verdi and Vincenzo Bellini. His most famous work, Lucia di Lammermoor, written in 1835, is seen as one of the great European operas. But L’Ange de Nisida (The Angel of Nisida) – composed in the late 1830s after he moved to work in Paris – never saw the light of day. It was written for the city’s Théâtre de la Renaissance, but the company went bankrupt before it was premiered.

The opera was thought to have been lost until musicologist Candida Mantica, a PhD student at Southampton University, painstakingly located and deciphered the score’s fragments over eight years.

Mantica said she found some pages in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale, but they were scattered among 18 folders and in no specific order. The reconstruction involved archive research across Europe and the US. “I was able to identify about 470 pages of autograph music [in the composer’s hand] thanks to a draft copy of the libretto, which allowed me to establish their original order,” she added.

The work will be premiered on 18 July at Covent Garden by London-based Opera Rara, which performs and records rare and forgotten 19th-century operas, in partnership with the Royal Opera House.

L’Ange de Nisida is a romance, telling the story of a soldier, Leone, who is in love with his king’s mistress.

Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti in a portrait by Gennaro Ruo. Photograph: Getty

Sir Mark Elder, artistic director of Opera Rara and music director of the Hallé Orchestra, will conduct the performance. He told the Observer: “It’s a work of top quality. Very beautiful.” Donizetti used some of this music in later works, including 1840’s La Favorite, but Elder said: “Over half of [L’Ange] has never ever been heard, which is terribly exciting.”

He said it had some “very powerful scenes” and noted that, because it was designed for a smaller theatre, “there is a delicacy and intimacy about the writing that is gorgeous”.

Donizetti died in 1848, aged just 50, and his masterpieces also include the 1832 comedy L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love).

Roger Parker, repertoire consultant to Opera Rara and music professor at King’s College, London, said: “For L’Ange to get as popular as Lucia di Lammermoor or L’Elisir d’Amore, that would be ambitious. Who knows what’s going to happen? But the musical quality is as good as anything he did. That’s the surprising thing about it. When operas are discovered, quite often you find they were undiscovered for good reason. But this one really is amazing music. It’s some of the best music that you’ll hear from Donizetti.”

He added: “All his other operas have been premiered now. This is the last one, and it’s one of the best.”

Donizetti’s letters of the period reflect his annoyance over his cancelled opera, and despair over the commissioning theatre company. In one he complains that: “The management were real donkeys.”

Parker believes that L’Ange de Nisida will “rewrite how we think about [Donizetti] as a composer, in particular about the breadth of his musical inspiration. It’s a curious mixture of the comic and the serious.”

Donizetti scholars knew of this opera, he said. “But they had no idea what it was like … So there was no discussion of it in any of the literature.”

He praised Mantica’s “astonishing” detective work: “Candida just went to Paris and kept finding another few bars. I think we’ve got more or less everything he wrote now.”

The opera is likely to last about two-and-a-half hours, excluding the interval. The soloists will include soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Sylvia. A live recording will be made for release next year. The premiere will be a concert performance rather than a full staging. Covent Garden is “a wonderful platform for bringing this unknown piece to people’s attention”, according to Elder. “I can imagine it being staged, absolutely.”

Girls and Boys review – gut-wrenching Carey Mulligan charts a marriage’s end

Royal Court, London
Mulligan is a joy to watch as she brings her expressive powers to bear in Dennis Kelly’s flawed but compelling one-hander

Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys

Consummate skill … Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys.
Photograph: Marc Brenner

Carey Mulligan has had quite a week. First she shone as the warily intelligent cop in David Hare’s compelling TV drama, Collateral. Now she occupies the stage alone for 90 minutes in Dennis Kelly’s new play and charts with consummate skill the disintegration of a relationship. She is a joy to watch; only later did I find myself asking serious questions of the play itself.

Mulligan plays an unnamed woman (can characters please have monikers?) who begins by describing her first sight of her future husband in an easyJet queue at Naples airport. An amused smile plays about Mulligan’s lips, and her eyes sparkle as the woman recalls her hitherto rackety life and the delight with which she saw her spouse-to-be put a couple of queue-jumping models in their place. We are instantly intrigued, as we are by the next scene, which shows the woman as a harassed young mum coping with two unseen children who have the luck to be named as Leanne and Danny.

This alternation of confessional chat and pressurised domesticity continues throughout the piece. Mulligan is brilliant at engaging with the audience and charting the gradations of the relationship with the husband. He runs a thriving business importing antique wardrobes; she cons her way into a job as a development executive in TV documentaries. The sex, we’re told, is terrific, and the couple have two lively, imaginative kids. But halfway through we get intimations of disaster, and a play that starts as comedy ends as tragedy.

Girls and Boys

Intimations of disaster … Girls and Boys. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Mulligan, whose expressive features gradually acquire the stark lineaments of pain, couldn’t be this good if the writing weren’t strong. Kelly, lately associated with family shows such as Matilda and Pinocchio, returns to a theme that haunted much of his earlier work: the nature of violence. Here he is particularly concerned with whether it is built into the male gender’s DNA. It is striking that, in the children’s fantasy games, Danny is destructive and Leanne constructive. Mulligan’s character finds herself working on a putative TV doc that seeks to statistically record testosterised aggression and devise a system that would make it harder for men to gain power. It is quite a leap, however, from this to the play’s shattering conclusion.

The form also pre-empts doubt or debate. Describing the unravelling marriage, Mulligan says at one point: “I am, of course, just giving you one side … But that’s what happens when you have just one person talking.” This may be Kelly’s attempt to disarm criticism, but it also reminds us of the limited perspective of the solo piece.

The night before I happened to have seen a play, Peter Gill’s The York Realist, in which you sympathised equally with two lovers sundered by class and circumstance. Drama can do that, whereas, in the one-person play, you are forced to rely on the testimony of the speaker. Here you have only the woman’s word for it that the catastrophe is motivated by professional jealousy. This doesn’t gainsay the immense subtlety of Mulligan’s performance or the clarity of Lyndsey Turner’s direction and Es Devlin’s design, which moves rapidly from a box-like space to a blanched sitting-room that seems to exist in the speaker’s memory.

It’s a gut-wrenching piece, but if you are going to invoke Euripides, as Kelly does, I’d suggest you need to present both sides of the story.

The Big Burns Supper – in pictures

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