BWW Review: THE PROVOKED WIFE, Swan Theatre
Times change, don't they?
I first saw a version of The Provoked Wife eight years ago - when the world was a very different place - and loved the bantz, the Carry-Onish battle of the sexes, the energy of the comedy. It's all there today of course, but, seen with what might be called woke eyes, one discerns a harder edge, a viciousness to the cruelty, a searing indictment of society's insecurity about its fundamental institutions - in this case marriage.
No wonder the powers that be (well, powers that were) had it in for writer, Sir John Vanburgh and it's no surprise to be reminded of the play's influence on so much theatre down the centuries. One also wonders how long it will be before trigger warnings are required for works like these - it would be a sad day indeed, but I suspect it's coming.
Sir John Brute is an abusive husband, an upper class yob, who rails against marriage and women - but sees no escape from either. His wife does though. She convinces herself that her vows mean nothing, as her husband breaks them all day every day, so she engineers a tryst with her long-time suitor, Constant.
Meanwhile Lady Brute's niece, Bellinda, as belle as her name suggests, has caught the eye of the cynical Heartfree, forced to confront his long held disdain for women as his fascination for her clever and charming ways grows.
Lurking in the shadows - well, usually a leafy arbor - is Lady Fancyfull, the vain, manipulative, scorned would-be lover of Constant, a woman whose age and situation makes her role in society almost superfluous, a state that has hollowed out her character and curdled it to caricature.
Of course, since this is the RSC, we get the ludicrous wigs, the beautiful dresses and the powdered faces - and it all looks so gorgeous that the make-up's single absence is both shocking and moving, a fine coup de théâtre from director Philip Breen - but no spoilers! A word too for the onstage musicians, who add so much to the spectacle, Paddy Cunneen's music a hybrid of 18th century and 21st century stylings, perfectly fitting a play that speaks so clearly to us across the years.
The words, often feeling more like poetry than prose and veering off into Wildean epigrams at times, need to be given full value by the cast, so it's worth the ticket price just to hear those voices say those lines.
Jonathan Slinger is magnificently vile as Brute, a coward and bully of the type that is everywhere in life, and everywhere does damage. Alexandra Gilbreath matches him with her Lady Brute, glimpsing happiness, only to see it buried by society's strictures. Gilbreath captures the joy of fleeting transgression wonderfully well.
The principals get excellent support from Natalie Dew as Bellinda, all coquettish faux innocence and John Hodgkinson as Heartfree, though it helps that he gets so many of the best lines, drawled with that insouciance that shows that he's ever so pleased with them even as he tries to feign ambivalence.
Rufus Hound never quite convinced me that he was so in love that he would risk everything - he seemed too in love with himself for that - and gave the impression that when, at long last, his advances were gaining ground after two years in pursuit of Lady Brute, that he'd rather cooled his ardour.
Caroline Quentin as Lady Fancyfull and Sarah Twomey as her naughty French maid - I warned you about the Carry-On, didn't I - have a lot of fun and are both excellent in their roles, but their interventions into the affairs playing out under Brute's roof, seem at times a little superfluous, stalling the otherwise swift pace and lending more minutes to an already three hours long evening. That said, Quentin does catch the tragedy as well as the comedy of Fancyfull very well indeed.
Like all theatre that has stood the test of time (322 years and counting in this case), The Provoked Wife is both a rollicking good night's entertainment, but also a mirror held up to the weakness of mankind and the insecurities in the institutions those with an interest to do so refer to as the "pillars of society". Power emerges as mediated and arbitrary usually, but not always, male, and cruel in its exercise.
Perhaps times have changed that much after all.
Photo Pete Le May