The Belle's Stratagem – The Royal Lyceum

Written by Hannah Cowley

Adaptated and directed by Tony Cowie

Originally conceived in the late seventeen hundreds, Hannah Cowley’s The Belle Stratagem is a sublime comedy of manners. Taking every pre- and ill-conceived notion one may have about a woman and giving it a good slap across the chops. Adapted for the Royal Lyceum we are no longer in Drury Lane London, but in New Town Georgian Edinburgh, and all the better for it.

Divided by two primary stories of love, Stratagem has a varied cast of unique players. Our first is of a young well-to-do lassie (Angela Hardie), fallen madly in love with her returning betrothed. His tastes, however, have been spoiled by those most wretched of temptresses: European Women. If she cannot claim his love, she will claim his passionate hatred. Our other tale is that of newly married Lady Touchwood, whose snivelling pathetic husband is terrified of her discovering city life. Stitched together through similar circles, both women become entangled in strategies to open the eyes of the men around them. 

The beauty of Stratagem is found in its humour. An equal split between the onstage talent, and the witty adaptation of Tony Cownie. Any who were lucky enough to view a Lyceum’s previous production Thon Man Moliere know of Cownie’s ability to draw the best from his cast. This production’s comedy is derived from so many layers it’s exceptional: physical, lyrical, cultural and moving from outrageously farcical to incredulously subtle. O’Rourke, McNicoll and Nicola Roy thieving the best lines of the night. It is so accessible due to this. Many see a period comedy, written by and about women at the Lyceum as potentially middle class or too clever. This couldn’t be further from the truth; The Belle’s Stratagem is theatre crafted for everyone.

The entire male cast, particularly Richard Conlon, Grant O’Rourke and Steven McNicoll, play at least one character with a whiff of misogyny to them. Yet, we still roar at their performances. This is a mark of irrefutable skill. An ever-present issue, long outstaying its welcome is both the subject of constant ridicule but still highlighted. Stratagem never slams anything into the audiences’ face, instead, it seeks to entertain, providing insight. Its feminine resistance is represented in all forms and across generations. It’s cutting, subversive, and jovial.

There’s something about the Scottish angle which just works for The Belle’s Stratagem. The multitude of dialects heightens the delivery, particularly from Pauline Knowles and Roy. The decision to localise it is genius, never feeling like a cheap ploy even when references are dropped without subtlety. There are enough for locals, tourists and especially history buffs.

The Lyceum brands itself with; ‘Theatre Made in Edinburgh‘, with good reason. The undeniable savvy of creators in this city is something to boast about. It has been over two hundred years and The Belle’s Stratagem is still relevant. Its indirect commentary on the folly of men and the social placement of woman is still needed. One day productions such as this will no longer be written, for all the right reasons. For now, we have pieces like this to laugh, share and enjoy.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:

Black Men Walking – Traverse Theatre

Writer: Testament

Director: Dawn Walton

Every breath of the landscape in this country echoes the lives of thousands across history. Beneath the soil, the lives of the rich, poor, women, men, Romans and black men and women lay forgotten to but a few. On the first Saturday, of every month, Matthew, Richard and Thomas walk these peaks – through two thousand years of history to find themselves, disconnect from technology, and in Thomas’ case – to reconnect with the past.

Profoundly lyrical, this first-time production for Revolution Mix is written by Testament, woven with intense word-play and tremendously honest humour. Without strong-arming, everything feels quite natural in the rhythmic chats between the characters. Testament’s piece perfectly emulates the desired effect of blending periods – to merge generational discussions; Alyeesha’s confusion over Thomas’ obsession with the past contrast with his disbelief in her lack of interest in her cultural history.

Maintaining a respectful nature – Black Men Walking also allows itself a brief insight into masculinity, in a rejuvenating light, tying the aspect of men returning to the land with the shadows of black men who performed in the courts of Henry the VII, were millers for the Romans, all while lampooning of the same concept of grown men’s boys clubs.

Delightfully charismatic, the titular men (as well as one straggler) perform their roles sincerely, drawing us in. Even with the dreary weather – you would have little question in enjoying a stroll with these people. Ben Onwukwe’s Thomas is a stoic role, a suggestion of fragility which evolves to us rather than slapping our faces – gradually building a rapport with Ayeesha, a young rapper who is perplexed by the men’s apparent ‘pleasure’ in walking.

As we wander through centuries of Black history on these Isles, Dorcas Sebuyange lowers a barrier of truth, though one we are all ashamedly aware. That some still find an unjustly perverse ‘right’ in determining whose home this is. Her injections accentuate the lyrical quality, showing a progression from mantra-like chants of before, into a new communication of rap, poetry and spoken word.

It is Trekkie-fan Tonderai Munyevu’s Richard, who is given the funnier lines, delivering them with conviction. An odd script, the jokes are borderline predictable but fit, especially when playing off of the home-stresses of Patrick Regis’s Matthew, whose body language flips when portraying the passive, phone obsessive father of two.

Complimenting the spoken word, Dawn Walton’s movement direction reinforces a spiritual aspect of history, bringing gravity in the repetitious ceremonies of these men’s monthly walks. Incorporating Simon Kenny’s design, an opaque barrier is put up at the back of the stage, serving as transitional cover for performers – or distorting space, entrapping characters in gorges or allowing for an unforeseen paranormal force.

And while the men may convey a sense of steady movement, there’s a loss of scale in Kenny’s design – a charming build, capturing the feel of the landscape, enriching colours with an awoken earth backdrop, but fails to reinforce the unforgiving landscape.

Tempest’s script is touching, without relying on exaggeration or melodrama. It relies on the, perhaps, unknown knowledge of the black men who built Britain, that there is a history buried beneath us, found in the milestones which have been denied or forgotten. It’s the sort of production you wish everyone could see, opening a dialogue away from ignorance through calming, story-driven theatre.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:

Hitler’s Tasters – Greenside Infirmiry

Written by Michelle Kholos Brooks

Runs at Greenside Infirmary, August 5th – 24th (Not 11th or 18th), 18.35pm

Fifteen women would carry out, what they consider, a job of notoriety and honour during World War II. With the risk of assassination peaking, they would dine on the foods of the Third Reich, no steak of course. They were guinea pigs. A first-line of defence for the Fuhrer from his enemies attempts at ending his rule. They were Hitler’s Tasters.

Until 2012, there was no confirmation of their existence, when the final living member Margot Wölk spoke out. The production, billing itself as a dark comedy, reads more like a drama with comedic elements. It’s a fascinating concept, three women confined to a cinder-block room. Where boredoms, jealousy and illuminating ideas of American film stars set in.

Hitler’s Tasters has another, important message behind its historical tale. Its a look at the banality of evil, seamless triumph in stirring hate, and how gullible people are when requested by their President Fuhrer. Originating from the States, though entirely coincidental, the American voice hammers in transparent warnings we should recognise with 1930’s Germany.

There’s a trend of technology bleeding into a contemporary commentary. Selfies and Madonna were not the expected pass times of the women subject to this job. In a world of ‘insta-famous’, the decision to include phone-obsession for these women, who were still girls oversteps. The concept, the idea that they could be famous for their role in protecting the Fuhrer is an ingenious insight into young women’s influencer aspirations. The constant selfies over-stay their welcome though, belittling the weight of the production.

Here we have Hitler’s Tasters misstep. Dark comedy works at its best when paying respect to the subject. Comedy is the focus over story-telling. A shame, as Mary Kathryn Hopp, showcases a pathos, a genuine tear-building whenever the illumination of the guards bursts into the cell. The entire female cast has a tremendous sense of sisterhood, even when turning on one another.

With laughs, Michelle Kholos Brooks’ script misses the beat. Perhaps, at the risk of sounding pretentious, there’s a loss from their American audiences. For the UK, offence is a currency. A few moments are good jokes, punches which stir middle-class sniggers rather than bellyaches. Rushing pace, jokes don’t land as neatly as there’s a sense of sweeping it off the ground before causing insult.

Frustratingly, Hitler’s Tasters is a tweak from a contemporary, brass-neck smack at historical repression and the resurgence of political manipulation. As it stands, the ingredients lay on the counter – a starter awaiting a few more spices before serving the main course.

Tickets available from:

Photo credit – Cody Butcher