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Rufus Hound and Caroline Quentin Star in Restoration Comedy
This season, the Royal Shakespeare Company is clearly putting women first. While there's much buzz around a new gender-reversed version of Taming of the Shrew, there's also a lesser-known restoration comedy that was ahead of its time in giving females a voice.
Starring Rufus Hound and Caroline Quentin, a new staging of The Provoked Wife has opened at the Swan Theatre.
Back in 1697, The Provoked Wife emerged from the pen of John Vanbrugh at a time when divorce was being debated in Parliament but couples were very much restricted on ending a union; even when it was at its very worst.
Cynically dismal and frank about the worst aspects of marriage, along with an unsettling undercurrent of rape, this drama isn't the most optimistic of the "sex comedies" from the 17th Century - but those uncomfortable moments alongside the hilarity are what gives it the edge.
It's memorable in the same vein as Pinter's creations, weighed down with a challenging underbelly of home truths.
Director Phillip Breen takes on a new version of The Provoked Wife for the RSC, which stays at the SwanTheatre in Stratford upon Avon until 7 September.
There's no doubt that Breen is excellent at comedy, displayed in previous RSC outings for The Hypocrite and The Shoemaker's Holiday. Yet while he brings plenty of mirth and hilarity to this production, he's chosen to dip deeply into the play's darker side and bring that to the fore.
It opens with fast-paced frivolity, bubbling along with romantic adventures and seducers gadding about town. Most of the comedy focuses around the ridiculousness of Lady Fancyfull - an ageing woman of high society, caked in make-up and gaudy accessories, who surrounds herself with people who flatter her constantly with lies to make her feel good.
For this role, Breen has chosen well to draft in actor Caroline Quentin, whom he worked with so well on The Hypocrite, as she has natural comic ability and quickly builds a rapport with the audience. Quentin gives a standout performance, making it hard not to like the awfully arrogant character she's playing.
As funny as she is, Lady Fancyfull is only on the outskirts of the core story that revolves around Lady Brute. She is a woman who married for financial security, left trapped in a love-less marriage and too afraid to have an affair with the man she loves.
Remaining faithful to an odious husband, who mistreats her, Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath) is the tragedy at the heart of The Provoked Wife; her hard-hitting words emphasising the social and marriage constraints of a woman.
After the interval, there's a darker menace to the proceedings. That's partly due to the wonderful Jonathan Slinger, a regular with the RSC, playing rogue husband Sir John Brute so devilishly. While his portrayal shows Sir John as an ogre, there's also a sadness to what the unhappy marriage has done to him.
(left - right) Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute with Rufus Hound and John Hodgkinson
Neither of the Brutes fair well in this warning tale against marriage. He wed her to bed her, she married for money and the raw emotion and hatred that remains is agonisingly painful at times to watch... so thank goodness for the comedy sidelines.
Aside from Lady Fancyfull, laughs are aplenty from the dashing duo of Heartfree and Constant, whose romantic assignations leave them hiding in cupboards and bushes from husbands.
Fine comic performances from John Hodgkinson as Heartfree, the sceptical bachelor, and Rufus Hound as the amorous Constant make the wittier sections bright and breezy.
As a besotted admirer of Lady Brute, Hound follows up his acclaimed run for the RSC in Don Quixote as Sancho Panza with another strong performance. He adds just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek while playing the romantic hero.
Sarah Twomey is a delight too as Lady Fancyfull's devious French maid, which draws on every caricature of the French imaginable.
Actresses Natalie Dew (left) alongside Caroline Quentin (centre) and Alexandra Gilbreath (right)
The traditional set design harks back to the play's origins with grand frocks, chalked faces, beauty spots and wigs. It sits well with the storyline, which is very much of its era and hard to translate into current times.
Breen's adaptation has brought together an excellent cast of players but the tempo does falter as it moves between romping farcical comedy and domestic unhappiness.
While The Provoked Wife is more grim than uplifting, it's a worthy piece of thought-provoking theatre that historically played its part in representing women's rights.