IN the late 17th and early 18th centuries divorce was almost unobtainable. Yet it is this that formed the basis of George Farquhar’s final play, the fabulous carnal comedy The Beaux' Stratagem.
A new version of the Irish dramatist's play is now on at the National Theatre and it is a real treat.
It follows the exploits of a couple of cads - Aimwell and Archer - who go about the country trying to cadge money, a good time and rich wives.
Fleeing London with not a bean to their name, they arrive at a Lichfield inn where both men shamelessly set about trying to woo the women while recouping some of their fortune.
To do so they pretend to be an aristocrat and his manservant and along the way encounter a glorious variety of characters including a crooked landlord, a fearsome highwayman, a fervent French Count, a maid on the make, a drunken husband, a furious butler, a natural healer and a strange, turbulent priest.
However in trying to make their fortune they meet their match in the beautiful Dorinda - who positively revels in her unmarried freedom and the equally beautiful Mrs Sullen, unhappily married to the aptly named Mr Sullen.
The play is remarkable because it looks at the frustrations within a marriage from a woman's point of view - in this case poor Mrs Sullen who has found herself hitched to such a boorish man, who we first see practically comatose from drink at the inn.
The production scores on all levels in particular the fantastic set which changes swiftly from a stately home to a rural inn.
The cast too is top notch and features some great performances. Pippa Bennett-Warner is delightful as Dorinda and Susannah Fielding is fabulous as Mrs Sullen while Pearce Quigley puts in an hilarious performance as Sullen’s servant, Scrub.
But it is the brilliant double act of Samuel Barnett as Aimwell and Geoffrey Steatfeild as Archer that makes this production stand out. Oozing swagger and charm, they prowl the stage, constantly on the make, eyes darting and ready to pounce at a moments notice. It is blissfully funny to watch.
The Beaux' Stratagem is on at the National Theatre until Sunday, September 20. Tickets from £15. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.