With comedy stars a-plenty in the likes of Caroline Quentin, Rufus Hound and Les Dennis, a theatre-goer could be forgiven for expecting an hilarious restoration comedy in John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife. However, although plenty of laughs and foolishness are afoot throughout, the play is much deeper and sinister than that, playing out women’s suffering in patriarchal 17th-century society, when divorce was illegal.
The play provokes much thought, in illustrating how women have come a long way in society in some respects and not in others. Where “Whilst there is a world, ’tis women that will govern it,” might now be true, 322 years after this play was written, we still live in a world rife with domestic abuse and gender inequality. The play is a social document about the problems posed by a bad marriage at a time when divorce was difficult, and could be regarded as a study that Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus.
However, please don’t be put off by the subject matter. This play, directed by Phillip Breen and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in period dress costume is an absolute joy to watch. Mark Bailey’s simple backdrop sets the scene beautifully, enchanced with some sparkling music throughout by Paddy Cunneen.
The Provoked Wife of the play’s title is Lady Brute, a woman who decides that she is justified in committing adultery since her husband is wilfully cruel and perpetually drunk. Alexandra Gilbreath is superb, and genuinely funny as a Lady Brute, torn between conscience and desire.
Lady Brute married her husband for his money. He married her to find out what she was like in bed. They both regret it bitterly, and they spell out their misery in riotous addresses to the audience, with fabulous one-liners mocking marriage, society and religion. Tired of being so despised and treated so horribly, she wrestles with the question of whether it is fair that she should take a lover, to address her desires and at the same time antagonising her husband.
The splendid plotting by the women in this play comes from all corners – with Lady Brute and her niece, Bellinda, arranging a liaison with Constant and malcontent (and apparent women-hater) Heartfree, or from Lady Fancyfull in fulfilling her delusions of being the most beautiful and popular woman in society, including pursuing her luck with Heartfelt. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen secreting themselves in closets!
The mood shifts markedly in the second act: Sir John grows ever more abusive –psychologically, physically and sexually. Jonathan Slinger’s performance as Lord Brute makes us despise him, yet we are still able to find him hilarious when he dons female attire in a night brawl, in wonderful scenes with the night watch.
Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull is superb from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who pays well to be flattered, condemning anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. By the end of the play, with her face-paint and wig cast aside, you feel genuine compassion for her as she is cruelly (and yet deservingly) mocked.
There are lively performances from Rufus Hound as the impassioned Constant, Natalie Dew as Lady Brute’s niece, and Sarah Twomey as a mischievous French maid. Rather baffling though, is the casting of Les Dennis in the minor role of Colonel Bully, spending most of the play moving furniture and speaking but a handful of lines.
John Vanbrugh’s comedy which scandalised theatre-goers in 1697 evokes similar feelings in 2019. Despite being a play of three hours, it does not feel that long, since the momentum and excitement was maintained by the actors to the end. Although dealing with some dark issues, this is a very enjoyable play and well worth a trip to Stratford to see it.★ ★ ★ ★
The Provoked Wife is at Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon until 7 September 2019. Visit rsc.org.uk for details.