The Provoked Wife
RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford
JOHN Vanbrugh is best remembered as the architect responsible for designing great British stately homes including Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.
But he started out as a playwright in the late 17th century – and a successful one at that. The Provoked Wife proved massively popular with audiences for a century after its publication in 1697, although it certainly had its critics who labelled it immoral.
Sir John and Lady Brute are thoroughly sick of their marriage after two years together. Sir John hits the bottle while his wife considers an affair to spice up her tiresome existence.
A comedy it may be, but behind the laughter this is a play with a dark heart. Pretty much all of the characters are hiding or escaping from something – most often themselves.
Vanbrugh himself said of the play: “The business of comedy is to show people what they should do, by representing them upon the stage, doing what they should not.”
Those expecting some sort of Carry on Marrying Restoration-type farce will be disappointed. This is more about verbal sparring, and director Phillip Breen has assembled a fine cast to carry out the war of words for this production of a now rarely staged play.
Particularly impressive are Jonathan Slinger – who rarely puts a foot wrong on an RSC stage – as the brutal, drunken, and rather repulsive looking cuckold-in waiting husband Sir John, who doesn’t mince his words about marriage with the equally impressive Alexandra Gilbreath as his fed-up wife Lady Brute. Neither engender any sympathy. He simply wanted sex and she money.
There is also some fine comic exchanges between John Hodgkinson’s woman-hating Heartfree and Caroline Quentin self-important panto dame-esque Lady Fancyfull, who is surrounded by mirrors, all of which she sees through darkly.
While there is some fine verbal sparring, there is also some which is rather laborious, and at three-and-a-quarter hours this production at times drags a little.
But there are certainly more pluses than minuses.
The period costume is a welcome change from the now all too common RSC mish-mash, and the lavishness is testament to the skill of the costume department, and a very good reason to support the current Stitch in Time campaign to restore and redevelop the company’s Costume Workshop.
Hats off also to composer Paddy Cunneen, singers Rosalind Steele (Pipe) and Toby Webster (Treble) and the onstage musicians.
The Provoked Wife runs until September 7. Visit rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.