Review: The Provoked Wife (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

Caroline Quentin stars in this revival of John Vanbrugh’s restoration comedy

Caroline Quentin in The Provoked Wife
Caroline Quentin in The Provoked Wife
© Royal Shakespeare Company 2019/ Pete Le May

In the programme notes for the RSC's new production of John Vanbrugh's 1697 comedy, director Phillip Breen waxes lyrical about the play's insight into human nature and its foreshadowing of everyone from Ibsen to Pinter. He's clearly besotted by it. I hesitate to venture the thought, but it did cross my mind that he might be a little too besotted by it.

Running in at a whopping three hours 20 minutes, with large chunks in which, by the director's own admission, 'nothing happens', it's unquestionably long. It could stand substantial cuts. Of course, Breen goes on to say that, in those moments where nothing happens, everything has happened – and he's right, up to a point. That point is probably where the juxtaposition of comedic subtext crashes uneasily against broad, shouty slapstick.

There's certainly a justification for scheduling this vicious battle-of-the-sexes satire opposite The Taming of the Shrew in the main house. Both deal with each gender's view of the other and confront audiences with a grim mirror in which to face up to their own prejudices and preconceptions. But where the RSC's current Shrew turns contemporary notions on their head with its gender-swap casting, Vanbrugh's seedy, misanthropic piece is presented pretty straight, with only an occasional nod to irony.

There are logistical problems, too, with the thrust stage treated almost like a proscenium, causing continual sightline issues. I lost count of the number of times I missed a sight gag because someone or something was standing in the way.

Where the show scores really highly is in its performances. The main cast are uniformly excellent, and it's a delight to see Jonathan Slinger back on the Stratford stage, here in superb grisly form as the utterly unlovable Sir John Brute. It's Brute's appalling treatment of his wife (a pleasingly conflicted Alexandra Gilbreath) that prompts her to consider seeking solace elsewhere.

That solace comes in the form of the young buck Constant, whose adoration from afar is now teetering on the brink of coming to fruition. The mixture of tender affection and rampant lust is beautifully played by the terrific Rufus Hound, following up his Sancho Panza in Don Quixote with an equally admirable straight role. He restrains his naturally funny instincts to create a portrayal that is perfectly judged in tone and delivery.

Caroline Quentin, meanwhile, gives a masterclass in comic timing as the studiously affected Lady Fancyfull, whose designs on Constant's pal Heartfree (John Hodgkinson) are doomed to failure. Natalie Dew as Lady Brute's conspiratorial niece Bellinda provides an engaging foil, while Steve Nicolson threatens to steal the show with his late, hugely entertaining turn as the scheming servant Rasor.

The production looks and sounds fabulous too, with sumptuous costumes from Mark Bailey and some faux-period interlude music by Paddy Cunneen, although the numerous songs feel indulgent and very expendable. It's a handsome presentation of a strange play, full of difficult ideas that don't translate particularly well to a modern audience, but that is ultimately rescued by its ensemble.