Review: THEATRE The Provok'd Wife Old Vic, London

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The Independent Culture
A bracingly undeceived comic realism is the hallmark of the plays of Sir John Vanbrugh. The idea, say, that a debauched rake could undergo a fifth-act conversion to unveering fidelity thanks to the refulgent faith and virtue of his wife, was the kind of stage convention whose bluff he itched to call. Hence his 1696 comedy, The Relapse, written as a corrective quasi-sequel to the cynical sentimentalities of Cibber's Love's Last Shift (four acts of coarseness followed by one of cant).

In The Provok'd Wife - revived now with real brio and bite by Lindsay Posner for Peter Hall's Old Vic season, Vanbrugh trains his clear eye on a much more intractable case of marital disharmony. Lord and Lady Brute (played by Michael Pennington and Victoria Hamilton) wed for the wrong reasons (she for his estate, he as the only way of bedding her) and they have now been living for two years with the distasteful consequences of their loveless bargain. The situation has turned him into a brawling, foul-tempered sot and left her brooding on the breakability or otherwise of her matrimonial vows.

What is remarkable is that this is exactly the stalemate at the end. We are in the days when a complete divorce could only be obtained via a private Bill in Parliament and Vanbrugh refuses to pretend that there are easy ways out of this trap. The play shows how near Lady Brute comes to succumbing to the advances of her devoted admirer, Constant (dashing Andrew Woodall). It also suggests - through the witty developing relationship between the Brutes' niece, Belinda (a deliciously cool Clare Swinburne), and Constant's crap-cutting, fortuneless friend Heartfree (Tim McInnerny) - that a marriage might just be achieved that is based on a measure of loving mutual sacrifice rather than greed.

But even that's left uncertain in an equivocal ending where no one in the central triangle seems to have given an inch. Posner's production heightens the sense of this in the final stage picture. More out of cowardly regard for his reputation than revived trust in her technical fidelity, Pennington's radically unlovely Brute offers a stiff arm to his wife. But, as she leaves, Hamilton's Lady Brute - a wittily agitated tangle of intelligence, desire and bad conscience - flashes back a look to her would-be lover that's not exactly discouraging.

With spare, droll designs by John Gunter (even the trees in Spring Gardens are shaped like rows of eavesdropping galants), Posner's production has fluency, argumentative elegance and a hard vigour in the episodes of physical farce - like the sequence where a rampaging Lord Brute, hideously disguised as his wife, quarrels with the perplexed constable and watchmen. No less unnatural-looking, Alison Steadman as the female fop, Lady Fancyfull, lets out compulsive shrieks of laughter that sound more like the reflex yelps of severe anxiety than the nonchalant effusions of a woman secure in her vaunted irresistibility to the entire male population.

The play is at its subtlest and best-observed in the long conversations between friends of the same sex. The most attractive of these, played with a lovely, giggling confessional intimacy here by Hamilton and Swinburne, is a bedtime discussion of men's double standards over female modesty. Should a woman laugh at a dirty joke in the theatre? To do so would be compromising enough but to fail to do so would be a sure sign that she understood it. Like the rest of the play, a shrewd, insightful demonstration that women can't win.

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