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17th century comedy poses modern questions

The Provoked Wife, Swan Theatre, Stratford, to September 7. John Vanburgh’s play was both popular and controversial from its first performance in 1697, and remained frequently performed for a century after.

This lavish production clearly suggests the play has some contemporary relevance. It asks, what is a woman to do when trapped in an ugly marriage? Walk out, or take a lover? Either course of action risks public shame, and not just for the wife. Lord and Lady Brute, both superbly played by Jonathan Slinger and Alexandra Gilbreath, are such a couple. He married her out of lust, she wed him for his estate. After two years, the marriage is toxic. He is brute by name and nature, she, up to this point, is virtuous but miserable.

The attentions of two gallants, Constant and Heartfree, directed towards Lady Brute and her lively niece Bellinda, offer diversion, and inevitably, temptation. The attraction in particular of Heartfree to Bellinda provokes the jealousy of Lady Fancyfull, played with show-stealing gusto by Caroline Quentin. Not a lot happens in The Provoked Wife. Characters converse at length, the discourse covering many aspects of what we now call sexual politics. It’s a good job it’s funny. In the very opening scene, Lord Brute expounds upon the state of matrimony like a malign Les Dawson, and his vituperative exchanges with his wife are the stuff of many domestic sitcoms. Lady Fancyfull’s delusional belief in her own gorgeousness, when ironically surrounded by mirrors, is mined for comic gold. The world-weary cynic, Heartfree, played by the excellent John Hodgkinson, gets some of the best lines, and makes the most of all of them. It isn’t farce, however. There is a darkness lurking beneath the sea of words, as male violence is never far away - on three occasions it breaks the surface in attempted rapes. Lady Brute and Bellinda, believing that words are part of a harmless game, discover they actually offer no protection at all - a pointer to our times, perhaps.

The play manages to maintain dramatic energy despite its relative lack of action. The stage is always busy, helped in no small part by the superbly mobile musicians who seem always at hand to signal the end of scenes, and amusingly on one occasion, to provide a suitable soundtrack to an evening assignation.

That said, the play still clocks in at nearly three hours, so there might have been a case for a little editing.

For tickets go to

Picture by Pete Le May (c) RSC.

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