Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 7 September 2019
Phillip Breen’s lively revival of John Vanburgh’s Restoration romp, The Provoked Wife, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, has glorious parts for both Caroline Quentin and Alexandra Gilbreath.
Quentin’s comedy credentials come into their own with the grotesque, narcissistic egomaniac that is the frightful Lady Fancyfull while the husky-voiced Gilbreath creates both an admirably winsome coquette and a tragic heroine, as the abused spouse of the title.
This marital comedy, featuring all the usual absurdity and farce found 17th century pieces, has a misery and sadness underpinning it that reminds of Pinter, Ayckbourn and even Coward. It’s theme of marital discord is utterly timeless.
The Provoked Wife is Gilbreath’s Lady Brute who is married to a pig of a man. Sir John Brute took her for sex while she got hitched for money and position and, after two years, they are both bitterly regretting the decision. He can find nothing good to say about his wife, frequently raises a hand to her, and spends most of his time roistering with his cronies.
She does everything she can to be a good wife but it’s never enough. Frustrated and lonely she confides in her niece, Belinda, that she’s considering taking a lover. M’lady sets her sights on the younger, more romantic and attentive Constant (Rufus Hound) who is a friend of her husband. She’s previously rebuffed his advances in order to play the dutiful wife but she’s now a desperate woman.
Constant needs no encouragement but cuckolding the husband proves harder to do than either of them ever imagined. Meanwhile Belinda, much to her own surprise, finds herself attracted to Constant’s friend, Heartfree, who just happens to be the rudest and most arrogant misogynist in town. He’s a professional and ardent woman-hater who goes out of his way to upset and denigrate the feminine sex.
Heartfree’s encounter with Lady Fancyfull is horrendous as he holds a mirror up to her vanity and self-absorption. Yet his verbal onslaught does nothing to deter Lady F from joining Belinda in pursuing him. Quentin’s monstrous and jealous Fancyfull plots throughout the play to get what she wants, using underhand tactics if necessary, to prise a now smitten Heartfree away from Belinda.
Meanwhile Lady Brute and Constant dance around each other trying to find a moment when they can be together while trying not to arouse the suspicions of her drunken husband.
Jonathan Slinger is magnificently repulsive as Brute yet, despite his odious behaviour and louche antics, he cuts a rather tragic figure.
Even when wearing one of his wife’s dresses (don’t ask) you sense that he’s rather lost and doesn’t know himself why he behaves the way he does. He wants to love his wife but is physically incapable of it.
His wife positively purrs with desire yet she too is reluctant to actually take the step and commit adultery even when she is almost raped by her violent, boorish husband.
The productions boasts a cast of 19 which is a lot of people to tell a very intimate story. There are servants galore, coming on to shift props plus an occasional turn from the golden-voiced Rosalind Steele as Lady Fancyfull’s in-house singer.
The ensemble also includes actor and comic, Les Dennis, making his RSC debut, who is little more than an extra here. He spends more time taking furniture on and off stage than actually acting.
But, I’ve been told, Dennis and the rest of the cast will be given more to do in the political thriller, Venice Preserved, which will be playing in rep with The Provoked Wife, in the Swan Theatre, from May 24.
Breen has produced a breathlessly manic production with Quentin’s scene-stealing, caricature of a vengeful and disillusioned dame, always guaranteed to get a laugh.
But Gilbreath’s flirtatious, expectant, joyous cougar, who leads Constant a merry dance, is an absolute delight.
Comic actor, Rufus Hound, not someone I’d have thought to pitch as a romantic hero (sorry Rufus), is underused but John Hodgkinson makes a bold Heartfree.
The Provoked Wife is entertaining but a trifle overlong. It’s a little over three hours and the second half runs out of steam. Even Slinger’s cross-dressing sidebar feel like padding.
No doubt Vanburgh’s comedy about adultery and abusive marriage would have been a lot more scandalous in the 17th century when marriage was a forever commitment. It still holds up pretty well today but, thank god, we now have divorce.
The Provoked Wife plays in the RSC Swan Theatre until September 7.
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