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.

Ann Hirsch on the art project that invaded her private life – The Start podcast

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In 2008, online and performance artist Ann Hirsch started to post videos of herself on YouTube under the pseudonym of Caroline, a self-confessed “hipster college freshman”. The 18-month project, dubbed Scandalishious, explored questions of femininity, sexuality and identity at a time when online presence was little understood.

In the third episode of our new culture podcast about artistic beginnings, Hirsch reveals how Scandalishious became an all-encompassing endeavour: infiltrating her private life, putting her safety at risk and eventually resulting in a breakdown.

No more walk-on girls escorting dart players at games

Practice to end, starting this weekend, after pressure from broadcasters and fans

Darts game

The Professional Darts Corporation said it regularly reviews all aspects of its events.
Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Darts players will no longer be accompanied at tournaments by “walk-on girls” after pressure from broadcasters and fans.

The practice of models escorting male players on to the stage will cease, starting with this weekend’s Masters tournament in Milton Keynes.

“We regularly review all aspects of our events and this move has been made following feedback from our host broadcasters,” said a Professional Darts Corporation spokesperson.

ITV said it was consulted about the change. “We fully endorse this move,” a spokesman said.

The change was predicted last year by world No 1 and two-time world champion Michael van Gerwen, who said the days of walk-on girls were numbered.

However, more than 6,000 fans have signed a petition calling for their return.

The Women’s Sports Trust, which champions women in sport, supported the move and called on other sports to take notice.

It tweeted:

Women's Sport Trust

We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on-girls. Motor Racing, Boxing and Cycling....your move.

January 27, 2018

Sofia Coppola on the film that launched her – The Start podcast

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At the 1999 Cannes film festival, attendees watched the work of a little-known 28 year old. That film was The Virgin Suicides, written, directed, and produced by Sofia Coppola. The novel by Jeffrey Eugenides about a doomed family of teenage sisters had resonated so much with the young Sofia she felt compelled to step behind the camera and make her own mark on movies.

In this first episode of The Start, Sofia Coppola reveals how personal tragedy – and her own not-too-distant adolescence – fed into the process of telling a story about youth and loss; and, 20 years on, explains the emotional significance the film holds for her today.

The best signs from the Women’s March in London – in pictures

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Molly tries to shuffle the pack | Victoria Coren Mitchell

Can Hollywood fix itself? Is that already happening? Let’s go to the cinema together and find out.

It’ll have to be my local Everyman – a genteel chain where they transmit a lot of productions live from the National Theatre and sell yoghurt-coated nuts instead of Minstrels. Might not be your cup of tea. On the plus side, you can also get a cup of tea. It has to be that venue, because the trip has already happened.

I’d like you to come with me on the trip I took, last week, to see Molly’s Game. The experience was complicated, raising unexpectedly intense thoughts about the topical issue of Hollywood’s women, and I’d like to talk it over with a bigger group. As my friend the Chimney Sweep would say: “Let’s have a mass debate!

The Sweep was actually with me at the cinema. He and I have held a weekly poker game for nearly 20 years, so you can imagine why we might be interested in this biopic of Molly Bloom, who ran high-stakes games in New York and Los Angeles. The Sweep loved her book. I thought the font was too small. So we were both, in our different ways, delighted when Aaron Sorkin announced a film version.

Factor in that my own poker memoir, For Richer For Poorer: Confessions of a Player, has been “under option” for five years without anyone figuring out how to film it, and I was so interested to see Molly’s Game that I could barely sleep at night. Although that may just have been the noise of my teeth gnashing.

I went to see it with the Chimney Sweep so that we could spend pleasurable hours afterwards discussing poker and the accuracy or otherwise of its depiction. Knowing that it couldn’t be better than The Cincinnati Kid or worse than Runner Runner, we stuffed our smuggled Minstrels into a rucksack and hurried in.

Before the main feature, there were two refreshing – even exhilarating – trailers. One was for The Post (which has just opened), in which Meryl Streep plays the celebrated 1970s newspaper publisher Katharine Graham in her battle with major government corruption.

The other was for I, Tonya, which opens in February, about the controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, played with challenging defiance by Margot Robbie, and her mother, played with savage comedy by Allison Janney (“I made you a champion knowing you’d hate me for it; that’s the sacrifice a mother makes”…) Even in the promo, both mother and daughter managed to be simultaneously unsympathetic and likable. Historically, in most films, women are only allowed to be one or the other. Interesting.

And both these trailers were in advance of a film about Molly Bloom: a clever, determined, greedy ex-skiing champion who ran an illegal poker game! Not a cute girl running a pastry shop in a romantic comedy, nor a kooky, wise-cracking friend; not a staunch/frightened wife in a thriller; not a brave virgin in a horror film; a really weird and uncategorisable person.

I was properly excited. On TV at home, we’ve been watching Feud: Bette and Joan on BBC iPlayer, a joyful series that relishes all the nuance of having Joan Crawford and Bette Davis reminisce about a Hollywood in which “everything written for women fell into three categories – ingenues, mothers or gorgons”, when the roles of Crawford and Davis in the 21st-century show (taken by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon) are so juicy, unpredictable and complex.

What with that, the Graham and Harding trailers and the promise of Molly’s Game, fortuitously hot on the black heels of the Golden Globes protest, it all felt like real change in the type of stories being told.

Whether you think it matters or not – and maybe it doesn’t – there has been an ongoing problem with the representation of women on screen, before you even get to the weird idea that it’s such an honour to embody some lame and hackneyed “ingenue” that actresses can hardly complain about the odd rape as they wait in the queue.

In British television and radio – while it’s embarrassing how little power or equality female performers continue to have – at least nobody argues that, if you want to be one of them, you shouldn’t mind if people wank on you.

So, by the time Jessica Chastain skiied on to the screen in the quirky, multidimensional character of Molly Bloom, her own golden globes a thing of healthy magnificence, I was already full of hope and optimism for a more interesting and realistic world.

And it’s a great film! Great performances, great dialogue, great portrait of a modern poker landscape. I loved it and recognised it.

And then Molly Bloom got beaten up. Just as I was feeling all excited and happy: punch, thud, scream, bleed. I mean, zzzzzzzzz.

It’s an important part of Molly’s true story, of course. But did we have to watch it in such visceral detail? Could the attack have been depicted with metaphor or sound? With anything oblique, surprising, new or imaginative?

Whether it could or not, it wasn’t. On and on and on went the attack. Fists to the face. Boots to the stomach. Beautiful, proud Molly helpless on the ground. It sure showed her. And we all got to watch.

What instinct is that playing to? Who is it for? I love the film but I really hated this section. Will we ever get away from glossy, sexy violence?

But maybe I’m wrong. Was it actually a good, honest way to show the horrible truth of what happens to women? Maybe it was.

After the beating, Molly strips off and has a long, painful shower. Like they always do on camera. She doesn’t just stay, shocked, where she is. Or go somewhere safe. Or scrunch up under the duvet. Or sit with her back to the door, making sure it’s locked. Nah. Kit off and under the water.

Let the mass-debating commence.

Eight big ideas for 2018 by Ed Miliband, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Jay Rayner, Sophie Walker and more

Art: Stefan Kalmar

2018 is all about reclaiming reality, opposing governmental and corporate paradoxes, and dissecting lies, before they become a new truth, the new normal – a new reality.

A moment of crisis is also the moment in which new movements come into focus and new ideas are formed. I’m excited by Forensic Architecture, an interdisciplinary group based at Goldsmiths College in London, which includes artists, journalists, architects, film-makers, lawyers, data analysts and activists.

Forensic Architecture is the name of the research group as well as an investigative practice that crosses fields. It is grounded in the use of architecture as an “optical device”, employing forms of spatial analysis, mapping and reconstruction, overlaid with witness testimony and visual documentation. The group has undertaken a series of investigations into human rights violations and acts of state and corporate violence that have informed military, parliamentary and UN inquiries.

At the same time, Metahaven, a Dutch design studio, deals with information democracy and corporate identity. Its most recent work, The Sprawl, considered the “ways in which fantasy can be designed so as to seem or feel like a truth … how propaganda multiplies within that upload/download architecture; an architecture in which both fact and fiction can exist side by side and even overlap”.

These groups are, in many ways, the contemporary version of the Independent Group, a collection of radical young artists, writers and critics who in the 1950s called the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) their home. And if the groups look similar, then this is because the struggles are too.

Stefan Kalmár, a former Turner prize judge, is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts

Politics: Ed Miliband


A demonstration at Downing Street against Donald Trump’s travel ban

As has been proved in previous generations, young people’s vision can lead to long-term change. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

A major reason to be cheerful in politics in 2018, and for years to come, is young people. Amid the gloom that has hung over politics and society since Brexit and Trump, young people have represented the most noticeable countervailing force. We saw it this year at the general election, and we have seen it in the waves of young people engaged in the anti-Trump movement, the #MeToo campaign and much else.

The significance lies not just in another set of people demanding progressive things, but a set of people with a new set of demands, unencumbered by the past and driven by the circumstances of today. People born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for many of whom LGBT+ rights, a new wave of feminism, the fight against climate change and an openness to radicalism are part of their generational DNA. When they look at the mess previous generations have made, they are driven to this desire for something better. Our deeply unequal world, including inequality between generations, is turbocharging this movement, which is not scared to demand big change.

Their idealism will often be dismissed as naivety or worse, as every wave is always dismissed, including the 1960s wave of feminism and anti-war sentiment. But older generations should resist the “we know better” impulse, the tendency to being a “centrist dad” as the term goes. Of course, this idealism is not always right, but its spirit is essential, and the demand it embodies for a new, fairer, more equal society should be embraced.

Pessimism and cynicism achieve nothing. By contrast, the energy and vitality of this new generation can help defeat Trump and lead us to build a post-Brexit Britain that doesn’t float off into a low-wage, offshore tax haven.

Just as the causes of earlier generations of young people, once dismissed as outlandish and radical, eventually became mainstream, so too it can happen again. They are the best hope for the transformation of the country we are to the country we can become.

Ed Miliband MP is a former leader of the Labour party and co-presenter of the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast

Biology: Jim Smith


A collection of blood samples

2018 will see advances in DNA sequencing thanks to samples from UK Biobank volunteers. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty

What we are is determined by our genes and by the sequence of the four chemicals – nucleotides – that make up the strands of our DNA. Fifteen years ago scientists sequenced and mapped the DNA in the human genome: they determined the order of the three billion nucleotides that make up our genetic material and they established (roughly) what the different parts of the genome do.

That has been extraordinarily powerful in helping us understand how life works and what it is to be human. But to say we have sequenced “the” human genome is misleading. Our genomes are all different, and if we are to understand susceptibilities to disease, or how people will respond to certain treatments, we need to correlate the health of individual people with their individual DNA sequences.

2018 should see this begin to happen. Thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technologies, and contributions from private sources, government and charities, it is now feasible to read the precise DNA sequence in every volunteer recruited to UK Biobank. Set up 10 years ago, UK Biobank represents a cohort of half a million people between 40 and 69, all of whom contribute information about diet, activity, body measurements and other personal information, as well as samples of blood, urine and saliva. Participants have agreed to have their health monitored, and approved researchers from academia and industry have access to all the anonymised data.

Already UK Biobank has transformed our understanding of health and disease, improving diagnosis and care for those with cancer and rare diseases. But if every participant has their genome sequenced, the prospects for understanding and treating disease, including obesity and mental health disorders, will be extraordinary. We do not know what we will find, but we can be confident it will transform our understanding of what it is to be healthy and what it is to be sick.

Dr Jim Smith is a developmental biologist and the director of science at Wellcome, the science and health foundation

Infrastructure: Sadie Morgan


Ouse Valley viaduct in Sussex.

The Ouse Valley viaduct in Sussex is a striking example of Britain’s built heritage. But how many of us notice the country’s infrastructure? Photograph: Alamy

Our built environment is so integral to our lives that most of us rarely think about it – we take it for granted. We can say the same about the design of our infrastructure and how it affects people and place. It rarely gets the attention it deserves.

As architects and designers our focus has been on buildings at the expense of everything else. We can all think of our favourite building, but can you name a great streetscape, road junction or railway viaduct? That’s because often what defines the infrastructure of our countryside and cities is the miles of security fences, concrete noise barriers and railway stanchions.

Reimagining our built environment is one of the greatest opportunities we have to put a healthier, more compassionate and greener philosophy into place.

From stations to bridges, roads to railways, electricity pylons to flood defences,our infrastructure should engender national pride and a sense of local ownership. Look to the past, and there are plenty of great examples from Brunel’s bridges to Bazalgette’s sewers and pumping stations to power stations reimagined for the 21st century, as in Battersea and Bankside, now Tate Modern.

The UK consistently nurtures some of the best engineering, technical and architectural minds in the world, but we are building it elsewhere.

The good news is that big projects such as HS2 – the largest infrastructure project in the UK for a decade – has committed to high-quality design from the outset.

Britain has proved it is capable of designing and building world-class infrastructure. Add that to a commitment to invest hundreds of billions over the next decade, and this is an exciting prospect. I see 2018 as the year Britain rediscovers its infrastructure mojo.

Sadie Morgan is the co-founder of dRMM, which won the Riba Stirling Prize in 2017 and a member of the National Infrastructure Commission

Food: Jay Rayner


EU farm workers in Tarleton, Lancashire.

Increasing difficulties in recruiting agricultural labour, partly as a result of the weakened pound, are likely to be felt by the food industry during 2018. Photograph: Alamy

Of all the falsehoods peddled by the pro-Brexit lobby, the most egregious was the notion that it was a decision for our future; the impact of the decision to leave the European Union on our food chain was instant, with the devaluation of sterling leading to an acceleration in food price inflation. By November this year it was running at 4.2%, a third higher than the headline rate.

In 2018 it is only going to get worse: the price of food will continue to rise ahead of general inflation, and as a weakened pound makes exporting ever more attractive, the major retailers will find themselves locked in competition with international markets for produce. Expect to see the big four supermarkets – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons – softening up their customers for higher prices. Meanwhile, the discounters, especially Aldi and Lidl, which keep prices low by restricting choice but buying in enormous volume, will flourish.

The optimistic view is that this should all be good for food producers in 2018. In reality, Britain’s farmers have rarely benefited from competition among retailers, which have always prioritised shareholders over suppliers. What’s more, farmers have their own price issues. Few food items are the result of a solely domestic supply chain. They depend on inputs – seedlings for fruit growing, for example, or animal feeds – from abroad and the prices of those have also risen. More pressing are the accelerating labour issues. British agriculture depends on migrant labour, and there is increasing evidence of a reluctance to come to work here, both because the wages are worth less when sent home, and a growing perception that Britain is a less welcoming place for workers from abroad.

This is all going to be felt most keenly in the restaurant sector, which is preparing itself for a brutal 2018. Those ingredient price rises, combined with increased business rates, a shortage of vital staff from abroad and a general softening in consumer confidence, are expected to result in many restaurants going bust. For Britain’s food industry the next 12 months are not expected to be kind.

Jay Rayner is Observer restaurant critic

Space: Maggie Aderin-Pocock


Advances in the understanding of space can be traced back to Einstein and other pioneers

Advances in the understanding of space can be traced back to Einstein and other pioneers. Photograph: A. Simonnet/AFP/Getty Images

We all know Einstein was a pretty smart chap, but few things show how ahead of his time he was as the recent detection of gravitational waves, which came out of his theory of general relativity, and is now transforming the way we look into space.

In this theory, Einstein merged three-dimensional space and time into a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. Within it, mass causes distortions in spacetime and this manifests itself as gravity (you may have seen this shown as a distortion of a rubber sheet). A gravitational wave is formed when two or more super massive objects collide, resulting in ripples in spacetime that, like ripples on a pond, expand outwards into space.

Einstein published his theory in 1916, but it would take another hundred years, until 2016, for the first confirmed detection of a gravitational wave. Why did it take so long?

The challenge was that these ripples are minuscule. The measurement needed is the equivalent of detecting a movement of 1mm over the distance between us and Alpha Centauri (our neighbouring star about 25 trillion miles away). It sounds impossible, but the gravitational wave has a very distinct signature that can now be detected.

The joy of this is that it gives us a whole new way of doing astronomy. For thousands of years observations with the eye, telescopes, photographic plates and digital detectors all relied on detecting electromagnetic waves – one of the few things that can travel through the vacuum of space.

Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) can now make these challenging detections and is now fully operational after a big refurbishment. And with five confirmed gravitational wave detections in the past 18 months, we are gaining momentum – many more exotic collisions should be detected in 2018. A whole new field of astronomy is being established, and it all stems from Einstein’s genius.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and honorary research associate in University College London’s department of physics and astronomy

Equality: Sophie Walker

Women in the US demonstrating against Trump

100 years after women won the right to vote in Britain, the battle for equality is being waged worldwide. Photograph: ZUMA Wire/Rex

Politicians could make 2018 the year that women matter, not by talking about equality but by creating it. Not by telling women to try harder – (“All you need to lift centuries of oppression is to ask better for that pay rise and stop making lifestyle decisions about babies”) – but by understanding the structural inequalities holding women back. By remaking our economy, our society and our institutions.

That would mean understanding that harassment is caused by a power imbalance and is not the result of occasional deviant behaviour; that austerity and welfare cuts damage women because they are designed to; that unaffordable childcare hurts national productivity; that we all get less from gender-blind spending choices.

We could all share care if paternity leave was funded and extended. We would all value it if we saw the benefits of investment in it: care yields twice the economic benefit of investing in construction. The next generation could thrive on relationships based on consent and respect if we taught equality in classrooms. And ending competitive tendering of women’s services could give the specialists who understand how to end violence against women and girls sustainable grant funding to do that work.

We could create a fairer future. If Brexit is the process of remaking our relationship with the world, women must be at the negotiating table. If Brexit is the result of our qualms about immigration, we must build a new system that gives women equal chances to build new lives, with access to public funds. If Brexit is opportunities for all, then women’s jobs and rights must be protected and extended as part of trade talks.

2018 marks the centenary of a small group of white, wealthy women winning the right to vote. It should also mark the year when all women, in all their glorious diversity, could finally vote for their equality.

Sophie Walker is a former journalist and the leader of the Women’s Equality party

Books: Jonny Geller

Piles of books

Books will offer both an escape from reality and insights into the way the world of 2018 works. Photograph: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

We have seen a shift in the nonfiction market to “authentic” voices such as memoirs of doctors (Adam Kay’s bestseller, This is Going to Hurt), nurses (Language of Kindness by Christie Watson, to be published in May), shepherds (James Rebanks’s No1 bestseller The Shepherd’s Life) and surgeons (Henry Marsh, Paul Kalanithi). I suspect this trend of “real” people writing about “real” experiences will continue.

But it is fiction that gives voice to our greatest fears and the political upheavals of 2017 have proved a great distraction to the necessary occupation of reading fiction. I can see sweeping love stories that take us away from the Twitter rages of world leaders (Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame and Jojo Moyes have new books out early in 2018), complex thrillers that take us closer to how the world works (McMafia on BBC1 from 1 January is taken from Misha Glenny’s book on the links between international crime and business), and fantastical stories to transport us (Harvill’s big debut, The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar).

Added to this, the Weinstein earthquake and its inability to swallow Trump will result in a new narrative conversation. In the 80s and 90s, movies such as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure emerged from Hollywood’s sense of a perceived threat posed by a new working female population, and I suspect Hollywood will find a way to give voice to the #MeToo movement. I also believe one response to “populism” will be detailed and specific stories of human struggle, filled with nuance, complexity and ambiguity. Most of all, the huge diversity of voices in Britain that have been waiting to be heard will find a place in the mainstream, and as we move away from continental Europe politically and economically, we will find expression in the bigger questions and multifarious voices in this country.

Jonny Geller is a writer, book agent and joint chief executive of Curtis Brown