Review: The Provoked Wife
Image: Hope Theatre
Sophie Alexandar - Mademoiselle
Claudia Campbell - Belinda
Conor Cook - Lovewell
Meg Coombs - Lady Brute
Tim Gibson - Heartfree
Will Hearle - Constant
Will Kelly - Sir John Brute
Jessie Lilley - Lady Fanciful
‘Marriage is a slippery thing' …
Sir John Brute has only been married two years and he's already sick of it - nothing but drinking can ease the burden.
The marriage is equally tedious for his wife, Lady Brute.
Temptation arrives in the form of a young man and Lady Brute decides to liven-up her love life.
But when the vain and scheming Lady Fanciful gets wind of it, she means to expose the scandal no matter the cost.
Champagne is popped and secret loves revealed, but whether all will end happily is anyone's guess.
Vanbrugh's 1697 comedy is relocated to a modern music festival in where revellers drink, dance and get up to mischief.
John Vanbrugh's late seventeenth century play stands up pretty-well to modern scrutiny in this version set at a music festival.
As it turns out, the play could be set almost anywhere because it's more about the characters and their romantic ambitions than anything else, though I suppose that fits in a situation where standing for hours in mud-drenched fields might turn one's attention to love, or more aptly, sex.
I certainly don't claim to be an expert on music festivals, but the setting here seems apt, providing a modern atmosphere for what, even today, still appears a rather risky sort of play - at least in terms of its subject and its description of women.
Though Vanbrugh was writing in the same century as Shakespeare, their styles are very different with Vanbrugh's work readily comprehensible and easy to digest thanks to the modernish feel of the dialogue.
So, there's no need to avoid this play on the grounds that it might stretch one's intellect too much with verbiage.
Moreover, this play opens up a window on just what our ancestors were up to and interested in at the time the play was written - and it's both shocking and surprising, even armed with our modern liberality.
One of the principal exponents of 'Restoration comedy', Vanbrugh's work (and that of his contemporaries) seems to have burst out from under the puritanical veil of the mid 17th century to revel in displaying just how sexually liberated and obsessed they were.
Perhaps it was the case that the well-to-do of the era had so little to do that their attention got focused on matters of the heart - or, more appropriately perhaps, the loins.
The story is, typically for this style of work, fairly complex.
Essentially it revolves around Sir John and Lady Brute.
Married for a mere 2 years, Sir John tells us his true feelings for his wife right at the start: "I hate her", he says.
"A wife's the devil", he goes on to generalise later.
So, he wants to be rid of her but can only get a divorce if she commits adultery and, as you might expect, there are men on hand willing to oblige.
There's no time here to examine the mores of those earlier times, but it nevertheless seems surprisingly frank, overly liberal and at times somewhat lewd.
Moreover, the style of comedy - cynical wit served-up with a hefty dash of fairly unrestrained licentiousness - still has the power to amuse, and it certainly does in this version skilfully directed by Hannah Boland Moore and employing a quality cast who more than do justice to the characters and comedy.
The play requires spot-on timing because of quick-fire exchanges and it could hardly be better here thanks to Ms Moore's tight grip on the reigns.
But this version has already had a sell-out run, and that shows clearly in what are
confident, well-honed and wholly enjoyable performances.
The sizeable ensemble requires considerable space, so there's no set to speak of - apart from a screen to enable characters to hide and a hint of tent-dwelling life in some overhead canvas.
That can leave actors adrift and looking statically uninteresting, but here Ms Moore provides plenty of inventive devices - for example, a neat cheese-cutting scene - which help to enhance the action, and there are plenty of nice touches in terms of movement and gesture too.
And though there are loud characters to exploit - for example in the generously excessive Lady Fanciful (wonderfully played by Jessie Lilley) we never stray far from believable reality thanks to commendably exercised restraint.
Though the focus of Vanbrugh's play seems almost wholly comedic, a serious issue underlies it - how to escape a loveless marriage.
In the end, Vanbrugh leaves the Brute family in the same situation as we found them in and that leaves us with a touch of melancholic sadness about their predicament.
Though there are clearly issues about the portrayal of women in this play which might not suit everyone, it is nevertheless a humorous glimpse into our collective past, presented with considerable panache by a hugely talented and accomplished team.
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