REVIEW: ‘The Provoked Wife’, Swan Theatre, RSC

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Lady Brute is unhappy in her marriage to drunkard and coward Sir John Brute. When she falls in love with a younger man, she is torn between faithfulness to her husband, and her desire for Constant. 

Phillip Breen returns to the RSC to direct John Vanbrugh’s riotous Restoration romp, ‘The Provoked Wife’.

With its adulterous love affairs, secret meetings and hidden passions, this play has all the ingredients of the typical Restoration comedy, that make for a great night at the theatre. 

With Paddy Cunneen’s sumptuous score and Mark Bailey’s lavish costume design, the production conjures the extravagance of 17th century society, with a nod to societal inequality present in the differences between the uniforms of servants, the rags and tatters of tavern-goers, and the intricate, textile costumes modelled by those in the upper echelons. 

Bailey’s simple but elegant set design, set against the backdrop of a large red stage-curtain with gold trimmings (possibly hinting at the theatrical pageantry of a conceited society) effortlessly transports us from the decadence of Lady Fancyfull’s residence, with its low-hanging chandeliers, to the rough-and-ready, ramshackle appearance of the local tavern, to the Spring Gardens, the setting for secret meetings. Occasionally, we are encouraged to use our imagination, as when Lady Fancyfull tells us she will hide behind a great bush, but quickly darts behind the red curtain.

Jonathan Slinger is excellent as the very brutish Sir John Brute, slurring and stumbling his way around the stage in nightcap and gown. His hatred of his wife second only to his hatred of fighting, Brute makes clear from the start that he sought only to marry her in order to lie with her. Since his marriage, he has come to detest the notion. He does not value, or even respect, his wife, and is frequently violent towards her. A coward and a drunk, he spends most of him time in the local tavern and is arrested, whilst wearing his wife’ frock, for drunk and disorderly behaviour.

Alexandra Gilbreath is wonderful as Lady Brute, her performance persuading us to sympathise with the character. Lady Brute married her husband for his wealth and estate, believing this would ensure her own happiness. Soon alerted to reality, however, she is desperately unhappy, and desires comfort in the hands of the gentleman Constant. At war with herself, she is torn by her marriage vows, which govern her faithfulness to her husband, and her love of Constant. Full of desire, she is also full of fear, and takes some persuading on the part of her niece Bellinda before she can freely, and without fear, open her heart to Constant.

Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull is the picture of vanity, fanciful in the extreme, deluded, and obsessive. Though she coquettishly pretends not to notice the attention of others, she in fact lives for it. She wants, she needs, to be admired. She believes she is adored by all men, and envied by all women. But in reality, she is pitied by all men, and a joke to all women. When Heartfree meets her to tell her of her faults, she quickly, and rather naively, falls in love with him, so when she spies him dallying with Bellinda, her thoughts quickly turn to revenge, and she becomes a puppeteer in a game that guarantees marital mayhem. 

Rufus Hound is charming as the gentleman Constant, constant in his love to the Lady Brute. Excepting the moments he is encouraging her to cheat on her husband with him, he is for the most part honourable, and protects and defends her against the fury of her repulsive husband. 

John Hodgkinson is delightfully debonair as the comic cavalier Heartfree. Natalie Dew is delightful as the witty and daring Bellinda, and the bilingual Sarah Twomney is fabulous as feisty French maid Mademoiselle. 

Though this may appear on the surface to be a comedy lacking in substance, director Phillip Breen does, in an insightful programme note, explain that “we should look beyond the facile decoration of the received notions of ‘Restoration comedy’, beyond the wigs, and frocks and the fans, to the heart of the matter. Vanbrugh’s brilliance as a comedian draws us to the stage, but it’s his ability to reflect our most complex drives and desires that keeps us there, horrified and comforted by our own face in the mirror”. 

Indeed, it is the intent and business of this production “to copy out the Follies of the age, to hold to every man a faithful glass”.

During the production, the members of the company do several times rush onto the stage, each bringing with them a mirror, surrounding Lady Fancyfull, yet each time, mirrors are dashed about, knocked down, until none are left standing. A cynical comedy, this production holds up a mirror to a society whose own vanity is reflected.

Outrageously entertaining, ‘The Provoked Wife’ is a devilishly funny production that results in Restoration rapture. 

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