Peter Ormerod reviews The Provoked Wife, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
John Vanbrugh wrote The Provoked Wife and was one of the most celebrated playwrights of his age. He also designed Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. It is somewhat ironic then that this mostly enjoyable and interesting night of theatre is rather let down by its architecture.
There is much to commend here, not least some fine acting and luminous writing. The play has lost none of its potency since it was first performed in 1697; if we are now more familiar than its earliest audiences were with its themes being given such vivid portrayal on stage, that is only testament to its influence.
At the centre of the story is Lady Brute, trapped in a loveless marriage with the boorish Sir John Brute (Vanbrugh was unsubtle with his names). So she decides to bring a bit of fun and spice to her life by conducting an affair with a younger man, Constant. Meanwhile, his friend, Heartfree, has fallen in love with Lady Brute’s niece, Bellinda. They plot to meet their suitors in disguise – only to be interrupted by the pathetically delusional Lady Fancyfull, who happens to be infatuated with Heartfree. It’s all very much the stuff of sex comedy, and the first half plays out with a great sense of fun and mischief.
But the mood shifts markedly in the second half: Sir John grows ever more abusive, psychologically, physically and sexually, the brokenness behind Lady Fancifull’s flamboyance becomes ever clearer, and proceedings generally are cloaked with a sense of unease.
The cast is one of the starrier assembled on the Swan stage in recent years. Lady Fancyfull is played by Caroline Quentin - she of television shows Men Behaving Badly, Jonathan Creek, Kiss Me Kate and more - who seems entirely at home here. There is a sense that she could be more broad and outrageous in her portrayal of this absurdly flouncy woman, whose face is so thickly painted it barely seems her own and whose every action is mannered and contrived. But the restraint she exercises pays off as the play progresses, her inner tragedy causing her make-up to crack and smear.
Elsewhere, there is a sense of talent being rather under-exploited. Television comedy mainstay Rufus Hound is Constant; Hound takes the part seriously and puts in an affecting performance, but could be afforded more licence to employ his comic skills. Perhaps most baffling of all is the casting of Les Dennis in the minor role of Colonel Bully, which does little to showcase his undoubted talents.
Jonathan Slinger meanwhile is bluffly vile as Sir John brute, but at the centre of things is Alexandra Gilbreath’s entirely persuasive performance as Lady Brute. Gilbreath approaches the part with a nuanced vigour, steering well clear of caricature or cartoon. Her behaviour feels entirely just and justifiable.
In fact, the most resonant theme here seems not to be female emancipation, although the biggest cheer comes from Lady Brute’s declaration that “whilst there is a world, ‘tis woman that will govern it”. It is the hypocrisy that surrounds ideas of virtue which men create for their own benefit: “Virtue consists in goodness, honour, gratitude, sincerity, and pity; and not in peevish, snarling, strait-lac’d chastity,” speaks Lady Brute.
The effect of all this though is undermined by structural issues. The play is too long, and while its uncertainty of tone is defended powerfully in the programme by director Phillip Breen, it delivers little satisfaction. The oddly drab staging does not help matters, although the costumes are splendid.
A fine production, then, of a fine play. But it feels as though an even better one may be trying to break out.
* The Provoked Wife runs until September 7. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/the-provoked-wife to book.