Southerne, an Irish playwright who is best known for his tragedies of a few years later, The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, here contemplates the problem of a woman's accommodation to a world ruled by men, and brutal ones at that. The message is that woman was made for man to conquer and discard. Hearing that the rake Wilding has seduced a nave young virgin, another man remarks approvingly, 'Where he visits, every man may be received in his turn.' Though in company the men are languid and blase, their usual form of address to a woman when the two are alone is to grab her thighs and pull up her skirts.
The one woman who seems not to be a victim is Mrs Wittwoud, who plays the men's game even more ruthlessly than they. Eager to make a bargain with Wilding, she blandly agrees to deliver her friend, Mrs Sightly, to his bed. Her plan falls through, but Mrs Wittwoud sees her chance to recoup at a masquerade. (With its opportunities for deception and quick, easy sex, a masquerade would seem the most superfluous entertainment possible for this lot). She will copy Mrs Sightly's costume and impersonate her. But, to Mrs Wittwoud's mortification, and the other guests' amusement, her plot, her face and more are publicly unmasked.
Southerne's vision is a challenging one, but his play is often less theatrical than it is realistic. With no female character to engage our sympathies (Mrs Friendall is too worthy and dull), and no male who shows any shame or self-awareness, the essential situation remains undramatised, and the ending, in which Mrs Friendall laments the unhappy state of affairs, is unsatisfying. Too much of the dialogue has the music of wit without its lyrics. One feels for the actor who narrows his eyes and delivers, as if it were a real epigram, such a line as 'He that won't lie to his mistress will hardly lie with her.'
The Wives' Excuse, though, has plenty of period interest, which Max Stafford-Clark's dashing production ably extracts. He's aided by Julian McGowan's handsome panelled set and picturesque costumes (though these are updated by about a century - easier to hoist those narrow skirts?). Clive Wood makes a diabolically sexy Wilding, trailing the air of the rumpled bed even when he isn't actually wearing part of it, and Robert Bowman is all too convincing as Friendall, the kind of show-off who methodically approaches women until one of them says yes.
For partners, they have, as Mrs Wittwoud, Lesley Manville, who goes in for simpering and eyebrow work rather than emotional force, and, as Mrs Friendall, the oddly stiff Olivia Williams, who, at the end of almost every line, pauses a moment and flashes a huge grin, like a slow student at hostess school. The only compelling actress is Carolina Blakiston, enquiring in regal, brandied-plum tones of her niece, 'Has she got into the trick of making the church the place of assignation already?'
Though the theme of The Wives' Excuse makes it pertinent to our own time, the dialogue turns up some other time-travelling surprises. Did you know that a 17th-century wine bore would insist, holding his glass up, 'You can taste the sun,' or that a 17th-century gallant, out for a good time, would say, 'Let's party'?
Continues at the Swan, Stratford (Booking: 0789 295623)