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Theatre Review The Provoked Wife, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The RSC are in assured form in a classic Restoration farce

SIR JOHN Vanbrugh is reputed to have started writing The Provoked Wife when imprisoned as a suspected British spy in the Bastille.

Back in London he finished it years later, after the 1696 success of his debut play The Relapse. That non-linear track record had no effect on his shaping of this archetypical Restoration comedy of manners, in which young men about town hunt down equally willing young women in witty sex games.

The accompanying paraphernalia of masked disguises and cuckolding of gulled husbands reflects the manners and morals of an elite strand of a London society entertained by theatrical images of itself.

Vanbrugh’s dialogue might not have the epigrammatic sharpness of earlier writers like William Congreve, yet it compensates with a virile naturalistic language that underpins lively plotting, in which thinly disguised seriousness is masked by farcical interludes.

Sir John Brute, sick of “the cloying sauce of matrimony,” hates his long-suffering wife, who is understandably tempted by the attentions of her admirer Constant (Rufus Hound). There is a parallel coupling of his friend, the would-be misogynistic Heartfree (John Hodgkinson) and Lady Brute’s niece Belinda (Natalie Dew), with the action enlivened by Caroline Quentin’s comic butt, the overweeningly pretentious Lady Fancyfull.

The play has always been popular with actors, who appreciate its meaty roles, and audiences who enjoy their entanglements and the high farce when Sir John, out on a drunken spree and dressed in his wife’s gown, is arrested by the watch. He proceeds to regale the magistrate with a hilarious description of the self-indulgent daily life of a lady of quality.

Phillip Breen’s production is served by a strong, experienced RSC cast, with Jonathan Slinger as Sir John and Alexandra Gilbreath as his lady conveying more than a hint of the unhappiness underlying the comic surface of this conventional Restoration treatment of a loveless marriage.

The frequency of modern revivals of Restoration comedy has often reflected the mood of contemporary society and Mark Bailey’s period setting and costumes, along with Paddy Cuneen’s jaunty woodwind score, support what’s a worthy revival.

It provides some welcome relief from the tensions of the day.

Runs in repertoire until September 7: box office


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