Was there nothing that Sir John Vanbrugh couldn’t do? Architect of such national treasures as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, writer of such enduring Restoration Comedies like The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, political activist, even working for the East India Company in Gujarat. He must have been such a Smart Alec.
Let’s get up to date with the plot: Lady Brute, tired of being ignored and despised by her waster of a husband, Sir John, decides to take a lover to spice up her life and to give him a virtual bloody nose into the bargain. She tries to instigate a liaison with Constant, a gentleman, whilst his friend Heartfree, who’s something of a misanthrope – especially against women, falls for Lady Brute’s confidante and niece Bellinda. To add to the mess, Constant and Heartfree are also pals with Sir John. The plot, as it so often does, thickens. Meanwhile, the vain and silly Lady Fancyfull, inspired by her companion Mademoiselle, also wishes to try her luck with Heartfree. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen heeding the ever-familiar instruction to secrete themselves “into the closet”. But, as Browning was to ask 150-odd years later, what of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
The Provoked Wife was Vanbrugh’s second comedy, first performed in 1697, with what was, at the time, an all-star cast. The whole nature of restoration comedy, a natural rebellion against the Cromwellian frugality and puritanism of a few decades earlier, required as much careless wit, bawdy and foppery as you could cram into a few hours. Stock characters abound, their names proclaiming their characteristics; but even so, they have hearts too, and social disgrace means precisely that. Reputation is key, and when a character cries “I am ruined!” they’re not kidding.
Phillip Breen’s new production for the RSC teems with life and laughter – until about the last thirty minutes. Not because the production goes off the boil, far from it; but because the villainous, murky side of Vanbrugh’s characters take control of the play. Up till then, it’s all knowing winks, powdered faces, nicking an audience member’s programme, and a wonderful selection of pomposity-pricking moments. However, despite its obviously comical – indeed farcical – main plot of wannabe sexual shenanigans and the hilarity of cuckolding a cruel husband, there’s a savage underbelly that makes you question whether you should be laughing at it; and that knife-edge is at the heart of all the best comedy, from Shakespeare to Ayckbourn. As the plot switches from major to minor, the effects of what’s been happening to these figures of fun, who are indeed flesh and blood after all, becomes apparent, and by the end there’s very little to laugh at.
Mark Bailey’s simple set presents us with a solid proscenium arch complete with traditional overhangings and a useful curtain to hide behind. And an all-important back door, which is our glimpse of the outside world, the entry and exit point for all things comical or threatening; and even a way to demonstrate superiority (watch two self-important women try to struggle through it at the same time and you’ll see what I mean). Paddy Cunneen has composed some lively, cheeky tunes for our five on-stage musicians, who herald the end or start of scenes and accompany Lady Pipe or Mr Treble with their pompous warblings.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is a brilliant portrayal of a woman coming out of her shell; wonderfully confiding, slow to react, discovering the truth of her own meanings as she’s speaking the words. She is matched by an equally superb performance by Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, who sets the tone of the evening with a hilarious opening scene of grumbling and misogyny, and who rises to the challenge of playing the old drunk vagabond impersonating his wife perfectly. It’s their scene when we see his true brutal nature and his attempt to rape his wife where the play turns its corner; challenging and uncomfortable, but played with true commitment and honesty.
John Hodgkinson plays Heartfree with just the right amount of cynicism, i. e. not too much, because you have to believe that he genuinely turns from a callous cold fish to an unexpectedly affectionate suitor. Natalie Dew is a sweet and thoughtful Bellinda – mischievous enough to encourage Lady Brute to cast off the shackles of her miserable marriage, but virtuous enough to attract the attentions of Heartfree. Rufus Hound’s Constant is just that; played very calmly and straight, respectable but always with a twinkle in his eye as he looks for preferment. There are also some terrific performances from the minor characters, with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Cornet a delightful fly in Lady Fancyfull’s ointment, Sarah Twomey a beautifully manipulative and mischievous Mademoiselle, Kevin N Golding a bemused Justice and Steve Nicholson a hilariously plain-talking Rasor. I was excited to see that Les Dennis is in the cast but was disappointed at how small his role as Colonel Bully is – just a little bit of drunk swagger in a scene or two; hopefully he’s keeping his powder dry for his appearance in the RSC’s Venice Preserved later this month.
But it’s Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull that makes you beam with pleasure from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who clearly pays well for flattery; she coquettishly protests modesty whenever she hears praise, and vilifies anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. In an age today where people often have self-esteem issues, here’s what happens when you go to the opposite end of the scale! Yet it’s a measure of the intelligence of Ms Quentin’s performance that when Lady F is shamed and mocked at the end of the play, her face-paint and wig cast aside, that you do feel some compassion for the wretched character. It’s a great comic performance and she brightens up the stage whenever she’s on.
To be fair, at a little over 3 hrs 15 minutes, the production does feel a trifle long, and leafing through my copy of the text, I don’t think they made any cuts apart from removing the epilogue. However, it’s a very entertaining and lively way to spend an evening; just remember never to provoke your wife.
Production photos by Pete Le May