Despite being best known for his work as an architect, John Vanbrugh also successfully turned his hand to becoming a playwright, writing both The Relapse and his better-known work, The Provoked Wife. Whilst The Relapse was apparently written for amateurs and those with less talent, his later play was written specifically for the greatest acting talent of the time. The brilliant performances seen throughout this production of The Provoked Wife should therefore not be taken lightly.
Based around ideas of love, temptation and cuckoldry (where a wife cheats on her husband, thus branding him a ‘cuckold’), this play deals with a couple in an unhappy marriage, where neither seems willing to sort things out with the other. Instead, the husband, Sir Brute, resorts to drinking, whilst his wife considers cheating. Spiralling out from this, several other stories emerge, all of which have love or desire as their central theme. Despite the heavy subject matter, this is a comedy, and a funny one at that. Despite being written over three hundred years ago, the humour is still entirely relatable, most likely due to a combination of Vanbrugh’s witty writing and the eternal subject of love.
The runaway star of this piece is, of course, the eponymous ‘provoked wife’, Lady Brute, played flawlessly by Eliza Shea. Having proven her ability to combine sharp wit with fantastic delivery in previous plays, this role almost seems written for Shea, allowing her the chance to showcase her talents on stage for much of the plays duration. Jason Ryall plays her husband, Sir John Brute exceptionally well, managing to convincingly act drunk for a large portion of the performance, providing humour without veering too far into becoming annoying. Lady Brute’s would-be suitor, Cornet was also played very well by Ollie Dickens, who managed to inject an air of optimism about love into a play that seems determined to highlight its flaws. Katie Macintyre did an excellent job as the meddling Lady Fanciful, managing to be vain, nosy and annoying at times, whilst still remaining, to me at least, a sympathetic character, largely due to her on-stage conversations with Mademoiselle, played by Lizzie Maxwell. Despite speaking in French for a lot of the play, Maxwell managed to express herself clearly to the audience, many of whom, I suspect, do not speak fluent French. Whilst her French accent was occasionally hard to decipher, it always remained spot-on, by no means an easy task. Finally, of the main characters, we have Heartfree, played fantastically by Stevie Jeram, who appears to flit between women, using them as his playthings and never daring to fall in love, the polar opposite of his friend Cornet. Jeram and Dickens play very well off each other, particularly in scenes where they are alone together, the dialogue between them bringing the majority of the laughs in this comedy and showcasing the talents of both of these actors.
As always, the stage and costumes need an honourable mention. The minimalistic design of the set allowed the actors performances to really shine through, yet the stage itself came alive when it needed to. The muted blues and greys of the set highlighted the bright colours of the costumes, and the occasional ‘pop’ of colour through carefully chosen objects added interest to the stage. The modern, yet timeless, costumes allowed the play to be translated into a modern context without needing to change the script.
Overall, everybody involved with this production should be incredibly proud of themselves. The level of work that went into this play was clearly visible, and The Provoked Wife is arguably the perfect end to a fantastic year of drama at the university.