Caroline Quentin as the larger than life Lady Fancyfull. Pictures: Pete Le May

The Provoked Wife

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


The Provoked Wife was John Vanbrugh’s second play: coming hot on the heels of The Relapse, it was staged in May 1697 at Lincoln’s Fields, and featured such of the day’s stars of the stage as Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry and the young rising actress Anne Bracegirdle.

It was an immediate hit and continued being revived numerous times. Furthermore, the notes tell us at length, its emphases were - seemingly – an influence on many subsequent playwrights, including Ibsen and up to Tennessee Williams.  

Like many of the plays of Charles II and William and Mary’s reigns, it is – as the title suggests – about marital tensions, the mistreatment of wives or paramours, about issues of loyalty and faithfulness – or their opposite. All wrapped up in wry comedy, parody, delightful distractions, secretive encounters and alternative dalliances.

The big question is – does a maltreated spouse owe complete loyalty to her ill-mannered, domineering (or drunk, randy, lustful, bad tempered) husband? Especially when his bossy insistence renders her virtually a prisoner? Though a deep-seated affection still remains, Brute is incapable of showing it. And at the end of the play, this production by Phillip Breen makes it clear a reconciliation is far from in sight.

Vanbrugh (1664-1726) calls the semi-crazed husband here Sir John Brute: one of those witty bits of nomenclature that pepper plays from the time of his predecessor Etherege (1634/5-1691)  to his 18th century successors, Sheridan and Goldsmith.

Jonathan Slinger plays him as a delicious buffoon: he topes at every opportunity, tries hopelessly to act as master of his house, is rude, sloppy, dribbling; if not a wastrel, a timewaster, mostly at the tavern. More often or not when on stage he has us in stitches. He’s an outrageous moaner too: ‘Everything I taste has wife in it.’

burte and constant 

Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute and Rufus Hound as Constant

The outstanding performance at the outset, however, is that very same put-upon, longsuffering wife (although their marriage is a relatively recent one). Alexandra Gilbreath as Lady Brute has such a gorgeous knack of playing the audience, including the upper rows, with winks, smirks, shrugs, splutters, chuckles, loud whispers, underhand giggles, sudden hilarious changes of mood – and a welcome forceful and endlessly entertaining projection – that she rules the stage and has us on her side instantly.

Her significant pauses give Vanbrugh’s text an added frisson. Her assignation scene in the woods is hilarious. And she quickly brings to the fore two of the play’s motifs: the misery of marriage (‘he hath used me so barbarously’); and that other thought, that ‘If women had their wills, the world would be finely governed.’ Giving women second place is, in fact, lunacy.

Soon afterwards we are fed into the rather different world of Lady Fancyfull (the wonderful Caroline Quentin). She is, as her name implies, delusional; a dreamer: deliciously vain and unduly optimistic believing in her own allure and sexiness, thinking herself the natural object of desire for any man of interest.

When she totters about holding a quill while purportedly penning a letter, and coats her face with black ink, one splits one’s sides. Clad in the most spectacular, over the top bosomy attire, mainly ostentatious pinks, plus a vast wig and the obligatory beauty spot, she waddles and plods and frisks around the stage, uttering dotty theories and inventing ludicrous dicta. Frankie Howerd in drag, one thinks – or any Pantomime dame. Her first scene, in her own boudoir, is gobsmackingly funny; when she gets caught up in the shenanigans going on in the local woods, she is a hoot.

wife trio

Natalie Dew as Bellinda, Caroline Quentin as Lady Fancyfull and Alexandra Gilbreath as Lady Brute

Vanbrugh, however, lets the character a bit run out of puff. Her later involvement is very tentative; she seems lost, her ebullience ditched (‘O jealousy, O torture, I am on the rack’). And as she comes down from her high horse, so Quentin subtly lets the squeaky, squealy original voice fade away. She begins to talk normally, and rather touchingly. And she is not beaten: ‘I am the steadiest creature in the world when I have determined to do mischief’. Quentin was also in the RSC’s brilliant, side-splitting The Hypocrite.

Lady Fancyfull’s aide-de-camp is ‘Mademoiselle’, a role in which Sarah Twomey is almost a laugh-a-minute match for her superior. Her French accent is hilarious (‘If you never lurve, you nevair be ‘appy); she understands every tiny passing fad of Lady F and knows how to anticipate where necessary. The writing for her is witty, amusing and snappy. She it is who keeps her charge from making hopeless slip-ups and putting her foot in it yet again. She has some splendidly funny exits. And the pair play off each other to delicious effect; her Ladyship accepts Mademoiselle’s tickings off in good odour: together they make a team, and a very funny one too.

Phillip Breen’s staging has an eye out for every detail. It’s vital and energised; sometimes frenetic, periodically explosive, and occasionally, at the other end, sombre and reflective. Set changes, such as there are, are quickly and neatly effected. Realistically Designer Mark  Bailey hadn’t much to do, apart from furnishing sparsely a dining table, dabbling with a few mirrors and adding two large red curtains at rear as if to suggest a proscenium of the day; but the costumes, if his, are quite glorious: those of the three women (including the Brutes’ niece) are absolutely gorgeous – or equally, bizarre.

A good proportion of the text focuses on Heartfree (John Hodgkinson, like Gilbreath a notable RSC regular), a mildly well-to-do figure who has virtually abandoned any idea of marriage. He’s a useful character, not only because his scenes with his fellow beau Constant (Rufus Hound) act as a useful link for – and to a degree a commentary on - the women’s scenes but because it brings to the fore the main subject matter: marriage – yes or no? Is it worth it? Heartfree, having seemed not to waver, yields to the unexpected when he falls for that same niece, Bellinda (Natalie Dew). Dew gains in character as the play progresses. Latterly especially, clad in a gorgeous blue dress, she serves up a very nice, conspiratorial, vital personality. One extended scene between her and Lady B is a candidate for best of the evening.


Sarah Twomey as Mademoiselle

Hound’s Constant is more reserved, held back. It’s not until later on that he tries his luck with Lady Brute. To his surprise and perhaps ours (and perhaps hers), having entered into an assignation (which leads her husband to conclude she really is playing him false) she pushes him away. Constant, it seems, is not going to have his oats. Hound makes of him a lively, eager, amorous type, certainly rather youthful. His high point is when he launches, at the end, into a delightful ditty: the music being of the John Gay, not-quite-Handel type. That alone was a treat and heralded a pretty buoyant finale.

The other roles entertained too. Carl Prekopp (Lord Rake) presides over a distinctly dramatic hullabaloo, a kind of sexed-up masque perhaps, or a wild Hogarth print which momentarily knocks us for six. He is a drinking pal of Sir John, as also is Colonel Bully (Les Dennis), whose boozy totterings in a red, white and blue supposed military outfit provides a moment or two of naughty slapstick. There was a rather splendid scene with a tailor, Nickcolia King-N’Da, where the unfortunate man is assailed in what looks like an inappropriate stop-and-search escapade. Two singers, one of them a young Dancing-master-cum-cellist, produced a particularly proficient, beautifully delivered ditty or two. Both these musicians (Rosalind Steele, Toby Webster) shone.


Les Dennis as a  . . . resting . . . Colonel Bully

The surprise at the end is the emergence, out of the blue, of Sir John’s valet, the curiously named Rasor, played by Steve Nicolson.. He emerges and delivers a kind of lecture on morality, all the more striking as it comes from the lower classes. He too has a mind to wed – the object of his interest is none less than Mademoiselle. His scene or two at the end were rather admirably taken: he had, it seemed, no little presence. There’s another super scene when Brute is unexpectedly arrested by the watch, with Alison Halstead especially (Constable) providing a beautifully spoken, sparky little vignette. No one walked out at the (now) charmingly politically incorrect line ‘They were gone – like a maidenhead at 15’. The word ‘slut’ also does the rounds.

But Slinger’s Sir John has to be the one to run off with the laurels – especially during the later scenes, where a series of twosome exchanges enable the play rather pleasingly to pick up pace. ‘Cold: So are all women always. Which makes them so willing to be warmed.’ In his shambolic two horned wig, he becomes, paradoxically, more human when one realises he is actually – maybe not only for reasons of status - jealous of his wife acquiring a supposed lover.

His moves, shuffles, stumbles, and hopeless attempts to preserve his shredding dignity, were all hugely witty. The little sequence between him (dressed as a woman, constantly – even audaciously - sucking a yellow ribbon) and the police was one of the wittiest of the evening, Slinger’s medley of mimicked voices being all part of the fun. It was his pacing, often enough, that helped make his performance so clever, and so distinguished. There is a massive explosion shortly before the end, when he strives to regain his authority – and composure. That was terrific. But as he goes through the (unnecessary angsts of believing himself cuckolded, he becomes genuinely poignant.

The music (just five wind and brass) came frequently on stage, sometimes neatly to cover a set change. A little too often, I think, though their playing was first class and they did vary their diet: a sort of Stravinskian vitality at the start and intermittently thereafter. It assumed several guises. And there was one joyous moment when they came on with bleeps and whistles to suggest a crepuscular birds’ chorus: clever and imaginative, and utterly memorable. To 07-09-19  

Roderic Dunnett


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