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A CurtainUp London Review
The Soldiers' Fortune
We are told that when Otway's plays were staged they starred Elizabeth Barry, the some time mistress of the Earl of Rochester, who was the male dissolute model for The Libertine. Son of a curate, Otway fell in love with Mrs Barry but as he was penniless there was no prospect and he joined the army in 1678. Otway had gone to war and returned to no future so he is writing from first hand experience, both of being penniless and finding the woman he loved had settled for a richer lover. After Rochester's death from syphilis, Mrs Barry became the mistress of George Etherege. Aged 33, Otway died in 1685. It is said, but is probably untrue, that he was starving and choked to death after ravenously eating a bread roll bought with money donated by a compassionate stranger.
The plot of The Soldiers' Fortune is imperfect but original. Soldiers, Captain Beaugard (Ray Fearon) and Courtine (Alec Neuman), have returned from the Dutch wars with no visible means of support because they have not been paid by the government. Beauregard obtains the patronage of an old queen, Sir Jolly Jumble (David Bamber) who, while lusting after the dashingly handsome Beaugard, will pay to watch heterosexual acts. Beaugard has left behind Clarinda (Anne-Marie Duff) who under family pressure has married and is now "yoked in wedlock to a decrepit dotterel", Sir Davy Dunce (Oliver Ford Davis). Dunce who, as if chewing garlic did not make his breath repulsive enough, also stinks of tobacco. Clarinda devises a plan with Sir Jolly's help to see her lover, through a series of clever stratagems, using her soon to be cuckolded husband as a go-between. Meanwhile Courtine has a complex courtship with Dunce's niece, the heiress, Sylvia (Kananu Kirimi) where they play games and make a pact pretending to hate each other and end up double bluffing the other. This last reminds of Belair Senior's device in The Man of Mode. Dunce on learning of Beaugard's dalliance, recruits Beaugard's henchman and Frenchman, Fourbin (Ben Turner) and Bloody Bones (James Traherne) to despatch his wife's lover. After the assumed deed and when threatened with prosecution for murder, Sir Davy is persuaded to try to bring the dying Beaugard back to life by warming him in his wife's bed. The ending of the play is most curious in as far that, although Courtine and Sylvia find love, marriage and a fortune, Dunce is told that his wife and her lover shall be allowed to meet whenever they please and so is sentenced to a life of obvious cuckoldry.
Ray Fearon is so attractive were I Clarinda I think I would have resisted family pressure to marry Dunce. The steamy scene in the Turkish Baths where Beaugard is given a massage doesn't just thrill the lascivious Jolly. Anne-Marie Duff has that pale beauty so valued in the seventeenth century and is a resourceful heroine. Together they give a performance of thrilling intrigue and sexuality. Alec Neuman and Kananu Kirimi spark off each other convincingly and he is left dangling off a rope by her, a visual metaphor for the suspense of their flirtation. David Bamber as the comic bawd makes us all squirm with his decadent desire for wampant woguery (Jolly can't pronounce his 'r's) and is greatly enjoyed by the audience. He plays the piano while telling his tale in the style of a silent film's overly dramatic music. Of course Oliver Ford Davis is in his element as the old fool, blind in one eye and unseeing a lot more. When his wife convinces him that she is chastely exposing a potential lover to him, a threat to her virtue, he describes himself as "the happiest toad".
The set uses all the flexible open playing area and staged at the back is a reproduction of an ornate seventeenth century proscenium arch with gilding and cherubs, but stairs come down into the orchestra area so that the cast play both within and without the stage. The effect is to provide more intimacy when outside the traditional stage. The opening out gives us a feel of seventeenth century London. The play is set around Covent Garden and in London's Haymarket where we are reminded cats caterwaul. A band of costumed musicians play their instruments and also have small acting parts. It is a pleasure to see a cast dressed in period, the women in straight revealing bodices, their hair in pretty ringlets and the soldiers in red wool coats.
At three hours, The Soldiers' Fortune might have benefited from a pair of scissors but there is plenty to enjoy in David Lan's innovative production of a difficult play. The morality of the ending is unlike any since Geoffrey Chaucer with a pompous old fool getting his desserts and can still perplex.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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