The Provoked Wife

John Vanbrugh
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Jonathan Slinger (Sir John) and Alexandra Gilbreath (Lady Brute) Credit: Pete Le May, RSC
Caroline Quentin (Lady Fancyfull) Credit: Pete Le May, RSC
Alexandra Gilbraith (Lady Brute) and Rufus Hound (Constant) Credit: Pete Le May, RSC

Some fellow, this John Vanburgh. Trader in India, political prisoner in France, he writes the greatest hits of his generation, then decides on a career change. So, without any formal architectural training, he knocks up Castle Howard as a starter, followed a few years later by Blenheim Palace.

Disparate though his career may have been, his works have common characteristics: radical, intelligent, elegantly shaped and perhaps with just a spare bedroom or two to excess.

Do not therefore expect, despite the funny wigs and knockabout names, simply a Restoration romp from The Provoked Wife. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, but far from farce as it switches between comedy and cruelty in the blink of an eye.

It’s long too, running to just over three hours, with a song too many and an exchange on the nature of theatre itself that might have been cut.

That said, it’s a great play, with a contrarian wit as sharp as George Bernard Shaw, and with two great returning RSC stars who really get their bodies behind every punchline.

Lady Brute is exasperated by her barbarous, abusive and drunken husband, and although retaining a sense of loyalty is tempted by the attentions of her would-be lover Constant.

A ruddy-faced Jonathan Slinger is Sir John Brute, looking and behaving rather like Mr Punch. “Everything I taste has wife in it,” he complains, and when he screams it’s like an air-raid siren.

Yet when he discovers wife and Constant in a compromising situation, there are no histrionics, just a chilly politeness. It’s a great scene, and one that sets the piece above lesser rivals.

The wonderful Alexandra Gilbreath, with a voice that ranges through the woodwind section from bassoon to flute, plays every line to full effect, with eyes and twists of facial expression in the pauses that mine and undermine the moral arguments around her.

There is an excellent scene too when John Hodgkinson’s Heartfree tells it like it is to the frivolous and vain Lady Fancifull—a fitting vehicle for the great comic actress Caroline Quentin, with good support from Rufus Hound as Constant and Natalie Dew as Bellinda.

Director Phillip Breen and designer Mark Bailey honour the style of Restoration theatre that so suits the Swan, with lively musical interludes fronted by singers Toby Webster and Rosalind Steele.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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