The Provoked Wife by John Vanbrugh, directed by Phillip Breen, at the RSC, Stratford upon Avon, May 2019.
Or, Why good comedy takes time.
Reviewed by Lucia Deyi, University of Birmingham.
With a running time that scares most audiences even if they are used to Shakespeare performances, the RSC’s current production of The Provoked Wife has many potential viewers dread a long night that could possibly be boring. Here is why the length of the play is necessary to realise its full potential.
The story begins with Sir John Brute telling us how much he hates his wife. Lady Brute, along with her niece Belinda, provokes her husband by talking about cuckoldry one night, a joke that quickly escalates when he gets violent. They are interrupted and saved by the two gentlemen Heartfree and Constant, a long admirer of Lady Brute whom she has until this point ignored. Throughout the play, Lady Brute’s sympathy towards Constant grows while her husband and Lady Fanciful, an envious lady after Heartfree’s affection, come close to ruining Lady Brute and Belinda.
There is, admittedly, some uncertainty in going to watch a play that is attached to the idea of a battle of sexes nowadays. Are we going to witness inert sexism, forced into a concept in order to be digestible for audiences? How do we play on sympathy with characters demonstrating views that have become politically incorrect? There seems to be danger in trying to claim timelessness for a play – be it Restoration or Elizabethan. Certainly, the RSC’s recent productions do not seem coherent in placing themselves towards this notion. While Justin Audibert’s Taming of the Shrew proves that gender-swapping the cast would not be necessary if the story was still timeless, the RSC’s recent production of As You Like It has been largely ignoring a whole body of history and scholarship around the play’s discourse.
The Provoked Wife, on the other hand, written by John Vanbrugh at the end of the 17th century, has been a controversial play even back in its day. Vanbrugh himself was an active supporter of the Whigs and the constitutional monarchy. Whether his political attitude influenced his writing and led to the play’s bad reception is arguable, but in any case, the female characters of the play itself are written with so much depth and complexity that it is the husband of the play who seems like the actual subject for moral inspection.
But this is certainly achieved as well by the craft of director Phillip Breen, who does not shy away from portraying the play’s characters as complex and controversial as they are, with the time needed. Alexander Gilbreath subverts the expectation that we meet victimised tragic Lady Brute. Her performance highlights that Lady Brute is not actively looking for passion, but testing the waters for an emotional – not material – protection from a violent and drunk husband. John Slinger plays Sir John Brute with such comedic brilliance that the violent outbursts feel like a tragic break.
The comedy of this production shifts constantly, from a light-hearted entertaining caricature of archetypes into threats that feel incredibly real at times. The breaks of the comedy in the second half is earned by the same characters by showing their brute violence, vulnerability, and inability to hold up their constructed identities. Suddenly, an unhappy marriage is not the matter for our laughter any more, it becomes the source for potential domestic abuse – the audience is thrown into this tension with exactly the right measure of shock and satire.
Given the attention to such details in character, progression needs exactly the running time the show has. We need to laugh with Sir John Brute before we see that he is everything but a sarcastic and moody husband. We need to laugh about Lady Fanciful (played ruthlessly outstanding by Caroline Quentin) before we realise that not being taken seriously puts her on the path to becoming a villain. We need to believe that Lady Brute is out for passion before we experience her attempted rape and feel the desperation of the moral cage she is imprisoned in. And lastly, we need to believe that Belinda and Heartfree could be the romantic couple we long to see before we are, by the end of the play, not so sure whether this is actually a good match.
The production excels in its timing for moments in which all laughter suddenly dies and a genuine question arises from within the audience. It is this precisely this feeling for timing as opposed to in-your-face concepts and an obvious political message that the piece realises the fullest potential of Vanbrugh’s text. Not a second is wasted, and yet there is time for the audience to breathe, achieved by musical pieces and a satisfying aesthetic that comes to light during these mini-intervals. The dedication to character, as opposed to concept, brings out just the political implications of gender and moral expectations of marriage and love for every audience member to draw conclusions themselves.
A further investigation of Restoration comedy, seems a worthwhile path to pursue.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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