The frustrating thing about David Lan’s revival of Thomas Otway’s The Soldiers' Fortune is the opportunity lost to re-establish a really fine Restoration comedy; as the evening drains away without laughter or brio of any kind, so does the will to live.
What has gone wrong? The auditorium has been magnificently re-arranged in Lizzie Clachan’s design, with a huge proscenium stage dominating an arena of platforms, a live band in a snug pit and even cellarage for a badly mis-fired homo-erotic scene in a male sauna. But the spirit of the play does not live in the playing, which is crude, over-emphatic, without pace or subtlety; it lacks the fire, wit and panache to match Otway’s text. We don’t fall in love with anyone on the stage.
Two soldiers, Captain Beauregard (Ray Fearon) and Courtine (Alec Newman), have returned to London from the Dutch wars, destitute and ragged, desperate for sex and money. With the help of an obscene old pander, Sir Jolly Jumble (David Bamber), who likes to watch lovers through peepholes, or hide under their beds, Beauregard initiates a scheme to seduce an old flame (Anne-Marie Duff), now married to an impotent one-eyed buffoon, Sir Davy Dunce (Oliver Ford Davies).
That plot runs alongside Courtine’s wooing of the hard-hearted adamant Sylvia (Kananu Kirimi), who instigates a war of words and a series of tasks and punishments that make Shakespeare’s Beatrice, let alone his Katherina, look positively kittenish. This wonderfully vivid sado-masochistic romance reaches a climax when Courtine is left dangling drunk as a skunk from a rope, and then trussed up in a bondage bedroom.
The play is rich in declamatory speeches, both heartfelt and ironic, about the duties of marriage offset against the cynical amorality of Sir Jolly – a man said to make nasty figures with the napkins at dinner tables – who sees matrimony as “a destroyer of civil correspondence.” And the narrative drive, which has more kinks than a twisted telephone lead, sees Lady Dunce and Beauregard dodging Sir Davy in their quest for satisfaction, finally achieved when the unaware old cuckold consigns Beauregard’s supposed corpse to the loving attention of his wife’s warm bed on a tumultuous night of slamming doors, ghosts and thunderstorms.
By this time, Lan’s production has itself given up the ghost, so that Sir Jolly’s exotic banquet for his charges comes as a hollow gesture of bonhomie, the twinkling lights and tango music somehow piling on even more depression. Bamber and Ford Davies play every line as if it were their first, so there's no progression in their acting, only humourless enforcement and a lot of shouting and eye-rolling. Anne-Marie Duff is always delightful, but she seems here to disappear inside her character, while Fearon’s handsome bravado is counter-productive.
There's a strangely unattractive score by Tim Sutton, which drags the actors unwillingly into song and has the bitty provenance of astringent Kurt Weill pluralising into melodic curt wiles. Otway died young in 1685, four years after this play made his name. Unfairly overshadowed by Etherege and Congreve, the poor playwright, who also wrote Venice Preserv’d and The Orphan, must try his luck another day.
- Michael Coveney