Straddling the line between raucous sex comedy and insightful examination of human folly, John Vanbrugh’s 17th century satire The Provoked Wife boasts more depth than the average farce. The plot may be pure commedia dell’arte, stuffed with licentious servants, lusty suitors, and a terribly dysfunctional marriage, but there’s a shrewdness to the writing – pitched somewhere between empathy and disgust – that still absolutely resonates today.
Director Phillip Breen brings out all the text’s delicacy and debauchery, revelling in the potential for utter daftness without sacrificing the compelling marital drama simmering under the surface. His cast hams it up hilariously, throwing shocked glances to the audience between bouts of slapstick silliness and rapid-fire repartee, keeping up a frenetic pace but pausing with expert timing to really milk a gag or give a moment of pathos time to breathe. As the story unfolds and the characters’ desires begin to run away with them, the tone slowly shifts, a disturbing undercurrent of vindictiveness and barely-averted sexual violence gradually taking hold.
Played live by the ensemble, Paddy Cunneen’s bombastic, operatic score heightens and highlights each distinct mood, flitting from lyrical chamber music to jagged dissonance to sultry, driving beats. Meanwhile, designer Mark Bailey keeps the set simple, a parquet floor and a proscenium of painted, gold-fringed curtains that serve as a backdrop to some lush period costumes. Laden with layers of lace and damask, gold brocade and inch-thick make-up, the performers end up resembling the vulgar, ruddy-cheeked caricatures from a Thomas Rowlandson print.
Heading the cast, Jonathan Slinger’s shambolic, matrimony-averse John Brute cuts a wretched figure, cursing, stamping, and slouching his way about the stage, lip curled in sneering misanthropy, simultaneously jealous and neglectful of the wife he once loved, and now loathes. Beside him, Les Dennis blusters about gamely with an orange stuffed in his mouth as his drinking buddy Bully, while Carl Prekopp’s anarchic bawd Lord Rake swoops about in lead-white face paint and a purple frock coat like a mad-eyed, Restoration-era Joker.
Caroline Quentin does great work as deluded, pitiably insecure Lady Fancyfull, vacillating between grotesque vanity and trembling vulnerability, her veneer of fussy affectation slipping time and again, eyes swivelling in panic as she tries to determine whether she’s being mocked.
However, it’s Alexandra Gilbreath’s superb performance as frustrated, unsatisfied wife Lady Brute that gives the production its heart. Yearning for a distraction from her loveless marriage, she practically glows with transgressive excitement as she flirts with Rufus Hound’s politely passionate suitor Constant, gradually convincing herself to go a little further every time. It’s only at the play’s end that she finally sees the sordid, heartbreaking reality behind her romanticised fantasy of infidelity.