Simon Godwin, interview: Director of The Beaux Stratagem explains why the play isn't just a restoration romp - it's feminism

The effervescently witty, carnally-minded comedy is opening at the National

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The Independent Culture

Simon Godwin’s first words to me are: “Can we start this on the balcony? I’m allowed to smoke out there.” You can certainly forgive the director a few urgent drags of nicotine: there is, as he says, “a lot going on”. Man And Superman, his long sold out revival of George Bernard Shaw’s epic riff on Don Juan starring Ralph Fiennes, has just closed at the National’s Lyttelton theatre when we meet. At the same time, he is rehearsing another play by an Irishman – George Farquhar’s 1707 comedy The Beaux Stratagem for the National’s considerably larger Olivier stage. Hot on the heels of that comes Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe. “And after that,” says Godwin, sucking on his cigarette, “I’m going to take a little break.”

Godwin is regularly referred to as one of our fast-rising young directors, which pleases him greatly since he is actually 37. He has also been about for far longer than the sobriquet allows: his first West End show was Eurydice at the former Whitehall Theatre (now Trafalgar Studios) in 1999. There have been Associate Directorships at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate and Bristol Old Vic and then a fruitful stint under Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court where his successes included Any Reiss’s sparky teenage comedy The Acid Test and Lucy Kirkwood’s media satire NSFW. But it has been his work for the National – first his bold re-imagining of Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 experimental psychodrama Strange Interlude starring Anne Marie Duff, followed by his equally ambitious revival of Man And Superman, that have made people sit up. Here was a director unafraid to knock the dust – and the odd hour of running time – from abandoned classics commonly considered just too long or unwieldy to have a permanent place in the repertoire.  “It’s liberating when the playwright has made such a brave set of choices; you might as well go with them,” he says. “It’s an invitation to be courageous.”

The Beaux Stratagem, a late Restoration romp about a couple of debt-ridden men on a mission to marry into money, is Godwin drawing on a glass of fizzy water after running two marathons. Taking it in turns to disguise themselves as a Lord and his servant, the dodgy duo head to Litchfield where one falls for a rich young heiress and the other for a married woman, Mrs Sullen. Yet The Beaux Stratagem is not just an effervescently witty, carnally-minded comedy: Sullen, played by Susanna Fielding, is unhappily married to her sullen husband, and her attempt to leave that relationship is a radical theatrical narrative at a time when divorce required the permission of Parliament.

 “The play is a civil rights play in so far as the image of slavery is the woman who is enslaved by marriage,” says Godwin. “The notion of someone breaking free from a pattern of history, as though Farquhar was channelling an early form of feminism, struck me as a really important point.”

Ushering forth that voice, or the ‘spirit’ as he likes to call it, is pretty much Godwin’s modus operandi as a director. He is not a flashy auteur – not for him the artful pyrotechnics of Rupert Goold or the dazzling modernity of Joe Hill-Gibbins. Rather his productions are marked by their psychological precision, clarity and, in the case of neglected classics (another recent hit was Shakespeare’s rarely staged Two Gentlemen of Verona for the RSC) an invigorating energy, as though he has run an electrical current through the text to show us what is really there.  “A play is a message in a bottle. It’s just a question of breaking that bottle so the play comes alive again.”

 Godwin grew up in St Albans, the oldest of four – his father David Godwin is a literary agent, famous for his whirlwind signing of Booker-winner Arundhati Roy – and as a child wanted to be an actor after seeing a programme featuring interviews with the actors from Grange Hill. He promptly got a place at the Anna Scher theatre school in Islington and even found early success in a BBC adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s Five Children And It, but realised, fairly quickly, that he simply wasn’t much cop as an actor. “I was very good at being myself,” he says. “But not much good at being anybody else.”

 At Cambridge, he got involved in the university’s vibrant amateur theatre scene: his contemporaries included Rupert Goold, who now runs the Almeida. By now it was directing that made the most sense. “I’d been the eldest of four children so I’ve always been a bit bossy. The idea of being in a room running things struck me as really fun. But directing also meant I could have a relationship with all the characters in a play without having to be any of them.”

  He is relieved that so much of his professional growing up happened off stage, or at least, off the London stage. “Working for so long in theatres outside London allowed me to quietly understand how plays worked,” he says. “There was even a period when I left Northampton and trained for two years at London International School of Performing Arts  where I learned about craft, practice – just different ways of doing things. It was a deliberate step off the career ladder. I think I was in a rush when I first started out. But accepting that this is a difficult job that requires practice, and patience and failure, and all those things has meant that it becomes a bit more manageable.”

The Beaux Stratagem opens tomorrow, Olivier National Theatre,