REVIEW: The Provoked Wife (Hope Theatre) ★★★

Marooned Theatre has revived Restoration comedy The Provoked Wife and set it in the modern day at a music festival somewhere in France, thronged by a gang of well-spoken, champagne-swigging reprobates.

It’s the story of a woman, Lady Brute, who is bored of/abused by (it’s not made clear which) her husband Sir John Brute, and who finally gives her heart (and libido) what it wants by getting with Constant, who has long adored her. Lady Brute is egged on by her cousin Belinda, who ends up getting with Constant’s friend Heartfree and converting him from committed misogynist into marriage material. They are spied on by their posh friend Lady Fanciful (who fancies Heartfree) and her servant/companion Madamoiselle. Madamoiselle is secretly getting with Lovewell, the long suffering butler who is spying on everyone else. Keeping up?

These are solid performances from a cast of talented comic actors. Tim Gibson as Heartfree and Will Hearle as Constant enjoy a lot of witty repartee together. Claudia Campbell as Belinda has the audience wrapped around her little finger with her sly sideways glances, and we have boundless sympathy for Meg Coombs as Lady Brute, the provoked wife herself. Will Kelly as Sir John Brute is an absolute pleasure to hate. Things go slightly awry with Jessie Lilley as Lady Fanciful, whose emotional range only seems to extend from hysteria to petulance, and Sophie Alexander’s manner and accent as Mademoiselle fail to ring true.

I’m sure that during this play I was meant to sit back and enjoy myself. I was probably supposed to ask myself such questions as “are we responsible for our actions when we’re provoked?” and “what is virtue, anyway?”. Sadly, the question I was almost fully occupied by was: “why do we need this play?”. It is (as far as I know) relatively faithful to the original text. It is competently performed and directed and tells its audience an entertaining story, it satisfies us and it makes us laugh. Mission accomplie, non? Well, no. Not in my feminasty opinion, anyway.

The Restoration era was an amazing time for theatre. The playhouses were open again after a long ban. Women were allowed to perform on stage for the first time. The comedies were fast-paced and topical, often gleefully full of explicit language and titillating immorality. John Vanbrugh wrote The Provoked Wife as a satire to mock rich aristocrats, who were regular theatregoers alongside their poorer counterparts. Staging this play was a brave choice by Marooned Theatre, in many ways. But this revival has lost its way. It doesn’t know who it’s talking to, and it doesn’t appear to fully understand the point it’s trying to make.

The Provoked Wife is an incredibly rich text. There is loads of class tension in there, and it’s also full of interesting gender politics. It touches on women’s agency in relationships, objectification, jealousy, adultery and the aggression and violence of entitled men. There is also some subtle commentary on the old rivalry between the UK and France. The old, slightly archaic text combined with the modern emphasis gives these themes a nice universality. In many ways, The Provoked Wife is as relatable to a 2017 audience as to a Restoration audience.

It’s this richness that makes it so frustrating to see that this production has nothing new to say about any of the themes it explores. The setting and props (music festival, Fortnum and Mason hamper) are there to tease middle class tastes, but only gently and half-heartedly. There are good ideas here, clearly, but they’re not developed enough to make a coherent point. Worse, some of Vanbrugh’s ironic humour ends up coming off as straight classism. The resulting effect is self-indulgent and, far from satirising the rich, it merely portrays them.

I also feel disappointed that the most sexist elements of the text are played for cheap laughs with no sense of irony. I feel let down by the gendered language, so ripe for subversion, which is presented so uncritically. I am bored of the tropes it trots out: “he’s mean to you because he likes you”, “men and women don’t understand each other’, “I like you because you don’t realise how beautiful you are”, “boys will be boys”, and, most dangerous of all, “I’m jealous and possessive because I love you”. This play is a litany of tropes, all of which could have been beautifully sent up – but they weren’t.

We can’t (and shouldn’t) impose modern expectations of drama onto old texts. The Provoked Wife
doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, for example (and nor does it have to) but these old texts do give us the power to do something new. To throw new light on tired themes, or subvert the ‘classics’ to say something interesting. That’s why ‘gender bent’ Shakespeare is often so fascinating to watch. There’s a reason old stories survive, and The Provoked Wife is a good play: it’s funny, well-observed and dramatically satisfying.

However, if a revival doesn’t do something special then, in my opinion, it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s just yet another drama by a rich white dude, taking up space that could be occupied by a minority voice with something new to say. The Provoked Wife is a nice evening’s entertainment. It is competent, funny and nicely put together. It could be so much more, though – and I think that’s a shame.

Reviewed by Annabel Mellor

(reviewed on night of first preview)