STAGE REVIEW: The Provoked Wife, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon Avon, until September 7, 2019.

WHAT a wonderful venue the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford is!

Here director Phillip Breen has led a very enthusiastic and extremely talented company in a revitalised and bang up-to-date reworking of John Vanbrugh’s Restoration period critique of the institution of marriage, with its associated satire on religion, self-delusion and infidelity.

And the most advantageous aspect of the whole evening lies in its connection with the audience.

Breen takes every opportunity to involve the audience in the action so that there is a seamless inter-play of dialogue between the characters and their direct commentaries and appeals for understanding, using facial gestures and mannerisms that would be impossible in the distant proscenium arch staging of the author’s time.

The play caused something of a scandal at the time of its original production, challenging as it did the accepted roles of marriage and women in society.

Sadly, Vanbrugh wrote very few plays for the Restoration theatre, as he went on to become the architect of the Grand Houses of Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Blenheim Palace. A true genius of his time.

As in most Restoration comedies, the determining nature of the characters is indicated by their names. Here, Lord Brute is a bullying drunkard taken to gambling and debauchery, full of hatred and disgust towards his wife who, he feels, has betrayed him by the withdrawal of her sexual favours.

In revenge, Lady Brute (who is not at all brutish, but condemned to retain his name by marriage) determines to prove him a cuckold by taking a lover. In collusion with her niece, Belinda, her affections are given to Constant, a young man-about-town who appears more than willing to act as her paramour in waiting. Together with his more world-weary companion, Heartfree, he, Lady Brute and Belinda meet to plot the consummation of the affair.

Their plans are somewhat disrupted, however, by the actions of the delusional harridan, Lady Fanciiful, who despite being surrounded by a host of mirrors, cannot see the ugliness beneath her rouge, powder and wigs, and understand that her own designs on Heartfree would always be rebuffed.

Lady Fanciful betrays the four conspirators to Lord Brute, and the affair with Constant is never realised; the only way for them to escape scandal is to arrange for Heartfree to abandon his rakish ways and agree to marry himself – to the extremely willing Belinda.

In Phillip Breen’s innovative production, the stand-out part is that of Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute who, despite being ‘ennobled by royalty’, clearly relishes every opportunity to demonstrate the awfulness of his nature.

A scene where he is forced to disguise himself in one of his wife’s dresses to escape the attentions of the watchmen is particularly hilarious looking as he does like Mr Toad dressed as the Washerwoman.

Alexandra Galbreath, as Lady Brute, is all husky voice, knowing winks and heaving bosoms, although I would have liked to have seen more sexual chemistry in the scenes between her and the rather restrained Constant, played by Rufus Hound, who rouses himself to a degree of excitement only when his intended conquest appears to give him ‘hope’.

Unfortunately, that excitement fizzles out a little in the later attempted seduction scene. Likewise, I would have liked to see more of a growing bewilderment and joy in John Hodgkinson’s portrayal of Heartfree when, after all his years of affected detachment, he finds his heart becoming captured by an extremely attractive girl clearly many years his junior, played coquettishly by Natalie Dew.

Caroline Quentin plays Lady Fanciful as the monster she is, and clearly enjoys every moment of it.

She sets about displaying her awfulness with aplomb, and engaging the audience in her deluded schemes. Her final scene when she is revealed to be the betrayer of the would-be lovers, without any make-up or fancy clothing but with grey hair and ugly face, shows the degradation to which she has descended, and is very effective as a result.

Les Dennis also has an enjoyable cameo role as Colonel Bully, a companion to Sir John in his drunken revels.

Indeed, everything about this production was enjoyable, from the set, to the costumes and on-stage music.

It was clear throughout that the actors were having the times of their lives. They used the intimacy of the Swan Theatre stage to great effect; as a result the audience responded by having a ball themselves.

Vanbrugh’s play challenged through satire the norms of the society of his day. Those challenges are just as relevant today. The play runs through in repertory until early September.

Catch it if you can!