First brought to the stage in 1697, John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife is a cynically dark comedy whose frivolous and shallow surface soon gives way to reveal a stark insecurity and hollow pessimism.
My first impressions were hugely optimistic. Musicians opened the production, establishing the period as they wandered across the stage, tuning their instruments while the audience settled into their seats. The costumes throughout were laudable; they suited the production down to the finest detail. All the ladies’ dresses were gorgeously bustled and rich in colour, pattern and texture. Exaggerated cuffs were wafted to great effect (with obvious enjoyment by the actors) and a certain amount of mincing could be seen from all including the servants. Enormous tongues sporting giant buckles strutted around the stage attached to the feet of the actors, pushed forward to be admired as their owner paused to contemplate their social predicament. With all this visual decadence in their arsenal, the cast bristled with character.
“The cast bristled with character”
The ensemble was strong and the chorus of unnamed servants and minor characters were an indispensible and ingenious addition to the scenes in Lady Fancifull’s house, with the Lady in question portrayed by the star of the first half, Caroline Quentin. I wonder whether this play is unusual in its portrayal of a female foppish character but Quentin played Fancifull exquisitely, with the audience in the palm of her hand from beginning to end. Every expression was a delight and her reactions and thoughts, clearly articulated in all their convolutions on her face, were always hilarious. Beyond Quentin, the comic timing of the entire cast held the first half together. The several mini operettas performed for the vain Lady Fancifull really were the highlights of the entire show for me.
It was such a shame that The Provoked Wife turned out to be a play of two halves. Despite the programme describing the ending as anticlimactic I was unprepared for the sudden descent into darkness. The bouncy first half introduces the vibrant characters and their relationships: the broken marriage of Lord and Lady Brute (who chaperones her witty niece Belinda), the woman-hating Heartfree’s close friendship with lovesick Constant, pining after Lady Brute, and the frivolous Lady Fancifull who believes her charms and frills to be God’s gift to mankind. The language is stuffed full of euphemisms, provocative allegories and analogies, while the women’s bodies and passions are frequently described in the terms of the body politic fighting against itself. A woman’s virtue is likened to a defended citadel whose defences mutiny and allow the city to be overpowered by lust. Most of the playfulness that so delighted me in the first half is nowhere to be found in the second.
The plot of the concluding half left far less room for the humour that had permeated the start. The scenes of attempted rape and domestic abuse that emerge as the plot unravels simply cannot be treated as comic, resulting in the seemingly light-hearted comedy transmuting into a dark domestic drama. Although it sports three meaty female roles, I could not shake the feeling that the actresses and characters were trapped behind a male veneer of sarcasm. The typical back and forth, the debate over the differences between men and women common in restoration drama felt slanted from the perspective of the male playwright.
“Even the most innocent-seeming jokes took on a cynical shade”
The other stand out performance of the production, Jonathan Slinger as a Sir John Brute (who truly lived up to his name), really brought out the bleakness of the humour. Slinger’s comic timing was fantastic and his character brutally savage in his discontent and resentment. The play is only allowed to unwind into what resembles a happy conclusion by his willingness to submit to cuckoldry, a role he manages to twist into a position of power. The lovers are only united because he chooses to allow it in order to make life easier for himself.
I arrived prepared to enjoy a frivolous comedy, a seventeenth-century drama staged in full farcical furore. Had this been the case I would not have worried about its modern relevance. The scenes of attempted rape and domestic abuse, to modern eyes, darkened the drama to such an extent that even the most innocent-seeming jokes took on a cynical shade. Perhaps all restoration comedy is more resistant to adaptation and reinterpretation than the works of other eras? Whilst the production value of this performance was extremely high, it did not endear me to the play itself. Maybe I can relax and enjoy an external view of the seventeenth century, admire the elaborate costumes and mannerisms, but the revelation of the darker undercurrents of contemporary social thought that are exposed in the plot and script are too horrific and disturbing to fit the style and mood otherwise created.
This is a review of a preview performance of The Provoked Wife on Friday 3rd May. The press performance took place on Thursday 9th May and the production will continue to run in the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until 7th September 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.
Image: Pete Le May ©RSC