Stage Door Review

Stratford-upon-Avon, GBR: The Provoked Wife

Thursday, May 16, 2019


by John Vanbrugh, directed by Phillip Breen

Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, GBR

May 9-September 7, 2019

Prologue: “All’s one, an Ox, a Poet, or a Crown;

Old England’s Play was always knocking down”

John Vanbrugh was one of those unusual people who excelled in two completely different areas. In architecture he is known as the designer of such masterpieces as Castle Howard (1699) and Blenheim Palace (1705) in England. In literature he is known as the author of two of the greatest Restoration comedies – The Relapse (1696) and The Provoked Wife (1697). The Stratford Festival of Canada presented The Relapse in 1989, but has never staged The Provoked Wife

In some ways that is not surprising. People tend to think that Restoration comedies are simply witty, satirical romps, and a play like The Relapse fulfils those expectations. The Provoked Wife, however, does not. It may begin as a satirical romp but gradually it turns very dark and by its conclusion it offers a happy ending for only two of its characters. For this very difference it ought to be presented more often and with themes like spousal abuse and the nature of consent, the play could hardly be more relevant. The current RSC production directed by Richard Breen deserves credit for fully bring out the humour of Vanbrugh’s play when it is funny but not trying to force it to be funny when its mood shifts.

The story concerns two misogynists – Sir John Brute (Jonathan Slinger) and Heartfree (John Hodgkinson). Sir John and Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath) did not marry for love. Sir John admits that he married Lady Brute only because he lusted after her and at that time in his life thought that rape was a sin. Lady Brute married Sir John for his money, but now after two years of verbal, mental and physical abuse, she feels she has more than paid for her mistake. In fact, Sir John rails so often against marriage and has broken his marriage vows so often that she feels she would be justified in taking a lover. Indeed, she knows a lover, Constant (Rufus Hound), who would be willing to start an affair if she could only let go of her inherently virtuous nature.

It happens that Constant’s best friend is Heartfree, known as a “woman-hater”, who hates women only because he fears to lose his freedom by being entangled in a relationship or, even worse, a marriage. Heartfree’s prime example of the worst in womankind is Lady Fancyfull (Caroline Quentin), who believes that she is so devastatingly beautiful and desirable that all men who see her can’t help but fall in love with her. Though totally overdone in dress and makeup and totally artificial in speech and behaviour, she is encouraged in her folly by her French maid Mademoiselle (Sarah Twomey). Fanciful believes that Heartfree’s disdain of her is really a sign of his love for her.

This situation changes when Heartfree meets Lady Brute’s niece Bellinda (Natalie Dew), who is as lovely and as virtuous as her aunt. Heartfree is taken aback by falling in love so quickly and so is Belinda, who knows of Heartfree’s misogynist reputation. The question whether Heartfree and Belinda can overcome their biasses and whether Lady Brute can overcome her virtue drive the plot to its surprisingly sober conclusion.

The way that The Provoked Wife begins already signals that Vanbrugh is playing with our expectations of genre and character. The Prologue, spoken by the actor who plays Belinda, begins by claiming that all know that the purpose of theatre is satire. But by the end of her speech, she is criticizing English taste for being indiscriminately satirical, caring not whether the object is “an Ox, a Poet, or a Crown”. Then Vanbrugh has Sir John enter and deliver a acidic diatribe against marriage as an institution that has spoiled his life. Since we know nothing about him, we laugh at his extreme views and assume from his description of her that his wife must be a horrid shrew. When she then enters and speaks so demurely to him and he speaks so abrasively to her, we suddenly have to readjust out point of view. We see that Lady Brute’s behaviour in no way deserved Sir John’s harsh description. In fact, she and Belinda too, seem like martyrs to a beast of a man who thinks that women are good only for fornication.

From this beginning as all through the play Vanbrugh forces us to reappraise characters we thought we knew. Constant seems like the perfect lover, but when he importunes Lady Brute a little too strongly to let go of her virtue, we begin to wonder whether such a man can be as virtuous as we had previous thought. In fact, we have to ask ourselves why we have been rooting so strongly for Lady Brute not to remain virtuous. 

The most extreme example is that of Lady Fanciful. She believes so fiercely that she is beloved by all men that we might wonder whether she isn’t a little mad. Yet, when it is brought rudely home to her that Heartfree, whom she loves most, loves someone else, Vanbrugh suggests that Lady Fanciful goes beyond being extremely eccentric to going mad in fact. Thus, Vanbrugh is willing to make us see the character who had been the chiefest source of humour moves towards becoming a tragic figure.

One can see how easy it would be for a director to try to force The Provoked Wife to fit the model most theatre-goers have of what Restoration comedy is. Luckily, Richard Breen is fully alive to Vanbrugh’s text and careful to illustrate how far from comedy the action strays. Sir John already lives up to his family name in the first scene. As the play progresses he becomes only worse and when drunk is positively vile. When he goes so far as to try to rape his wife, any aura of humour that surrounded his character has completely dissipated.

The RSC has not stinting in giving this lesser known play a top-notch cast. Jonathan Slinger, who has previously played Richard III for the RSC, excels at playing Sir John Brute, whose nature, like that of Shakespeare’s murderous ruler, teeters between comedy and tragedy until it eventually slips into the latter. Slinger’s Sir John is so outrageously mean in the first act of the play, we wonder how he could become any worse. But that he does, his drunkenness in particular cancelling out any remnants of wit and leaving him only with undisguised hatred. Slinger makes Sir John’s insistence on having Lady Brute kiss him after he has nearly raped her absolutely chilling.

For her part, Alexandra Gilbreath is an ideal Lady Brute. It is very difficult to make virtuous characters interesting, but Gilbreath succeeds by showing us how Lady Brute suffers under Sir John’s treatment and how she toys with the idea of taking a lover, first as a kind of mental escape and then more seriously. Gilbreath has us sympathize with Lady Brute’s every decision, even when she feels she must turn down Constant to be true to herself. Gilbreath shows that Lady Brute is fighting an internal moral battle and while it may at first seem amusing, Gilbreath shows that Lady Brute’s choice between either happiness or self-esteem is a terrible one to make.

Caroline Quentin is a constant delight as Lady Fancyfull. Quentin makes the character’s conceitedness so outlandish one can’t help but be amused. Quentin often has Fancyfull pause when she encounters negative words or actions as if she can’t comprehend how such a thing could be before Fancyfull readjusts her mind to construe whatever happens in her favour. Yet, Quentin is also effective in depicting Fancyfull’s downward slide when she encounters the one fact that she cannot construe in her favour. Growing more dishevelled, makeup smeared and taking to drink, the later portrait of Fancyfull allows Quentin to show us her character without her pretensions and to recognize how unhappy she really is. 

With his deep, resonant voice John Hodgkinson makes Heartfree sound eminently trustworthy and solid. It is all the more comic then to se this solidity melt into a jelly when he insuppressibly falls in love with Bellinda. Natalie Dew is an absolutely charming Bellinda, spirited and smart and clearly the ideal partner for someone like Heartfree. Yet, Bellinda’s and Heartfree’s doubts about marriage, as they witness the horror that is the Brutes’ marriage, are perfectly believable and quite logically make them fear ever to become like that unlucky couple.

Rufus Hound makes Constant a bright, carefree young man but succeeds in giving him an edge so that his encouragement of Lady Brute to let go of her virtue does not appear as disinterested as Constant might like it to appear. Sarah Twomey, sporting an excellent French accent, makes Mademoiselle’s blatant flattery of Lady Fancyfull a reliable source of humour. 

Richard Breen has the actors address their monologues and asides directly to the audience, even to particular audience members, as would have been done in the period. This is especially effective when characters like Fancyfull take us into their confidence not knowing that wes silently mock their ideas. Breen also makes a consort of costumed musicians part of the action as they introduce a new scene playing Paddy Cunneen’s slightly jazzy take on baroque music. The one aspect of the production that doesn’t work is the amplifying of the singers in a play filled with many songs. For whatever reason, the amplification, rather than making the words clearer somehow obscures them. This is particularly a problem at the very end when Constant expresses his final feelings in song and we can’t make out what he means.

Other than this, the RSC has given The Provoked Wife an outstanding production that should help win the play wider recognition as one of the greatest Restoration comedies, one indeed, that ought to make people realize that there are darker subtexts to Restoration comedy than they might have considered. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanyfull and the company; Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, Rufus Hound as Constant and John Hodgkinson as Heartfree; Natalie Dew as Bellinda, Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanyfull and Alexandra Gilbreath as Lady Brute with Rufus Hound as Constant and John Hodgkinson as Heartfree in background. © 2019 Pete Le May. 

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