Director Hannah Boland Moore on the true weight of this Restoration comedy, its moral ambiguity, naughtiness and political clout
“One great thing about the British is how easily embarrassed they are, and how easily they can laugh at themselves. That reservation and embarrassment create the perfect atmosphere for sexual comedy”
The Provoked Wife has transferred from a week-long run at the White Bear Theatre. How did that go?
A: It was a blast – it got amazing audience feedback and it sold out. That’s when we realised there was an appetite for this kind of show, and that’s what encouraged me to get this show a transfer.
What’s so great about Restoration Comedy?
A: It’s got one foot in Shakespearean comedy and another in the 19th century comedy of manners epitomised by Oscar Wilde. It’s often sillier and lighter than comedies like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night but it still has moral weight – The Provoked Wife is essentially about a failed marriage and how that has repercussions on the couple’s whole social group. Restoration comedy is also a forerunner to plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and, like that play, it revels in the absurdity of social conventions while at the same time using beautiful, heightened language. Vanbrugh indulges in one short scene of blank verse in The Provoked Wife, and then never uses it in the play again! I won’t spoil the surprise by saying which scene it’s in…
John Vanbrugh is such a big name in English history having been architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard as well as playwriting as a side line. Bit daunting?
A: He was truly a Renaissance man – on top of being a gifted architect and playwright he was an important political activist too, a dedicated member of the Whig group the Kit-Cat Club and a great supporter of William of Orange in his deposition of James II in the Glorious Revolution. He was also imprisoned in France for over four years as a spy, which gives an indication of his importance on the international scene. Despite all this heavy political involvement he was known for his genial nature and sense of humour, which come across in his plays.
We love the fact that his play caused so much controversy when it first opened in 1697. You’ve moved the play to a modern music festival, how does this help to keep faith with the sexual explicitness of his plays, but also by their messages in defence of women's rights in marriage?
A: One of the best things about The Provoked Wife is its moral ambiguity. I’m so glad Vanbrugh didn’t make a straight-up villain out of the abusive husband Sir John; he’s horrible and pathetic but you also feel sorry for him because he knows he’s a coward – he’s a well-rounded character, not a pantomime villain. His wife isn’t portrayed as a saint or a victim either- she has agency and she also betrays her husband. It’s funny because everyone in the play talks about Lady Brute’s virtuous nature but she’s tired of having that reputation, so she decides to misbehave. Vanbrugh subverts the ideal of the perfect, long-suffering wife by making her almost commit adultery. Vanbrugh’s play is incredibly modern in its portrayal of both sexes, and easily adapted to a modern setting; women still have to worry about their reputations more than men but they certainly have a lot more sexual freedom than in previous centuries, and in that sense, we are in an age of sexual freedom not unlike that of the Restoration period. The music festival setting provides a place for these characters to act a bit naughtier than they would at home, and multiple opportunities for private assignations and romance to blossom. It is also a great opportunity to satirise our own age – the vanity of social media is no different to characters in Restoration comedy gazing at their own image in a mirror (which they do often). We’re all foolish and this kind of comedy points a finger at us all.
We keep talking of a more sexually liberated society but the British are traditionally uptight about it. What can comedy offer us?
A: One great thing about the British is how easily embarrassed they are, and how easily they can laugh at themselves. That reservation and embarrassment create the perfect atmosphere for sexual comedy, because it’s about what’s acceptable in public and how far that boundary can be pushed. I think it’s that traditional uptight exterior which is the very reason this country has produced such fantastic social comedy throughout history.
Women’s rights in marriage have changed considerably since Vanbrugh’s day, what does the play focus on in this respect?
A: It’s certainly clear that there’s a double standard when it comes to what’s expected of men and women in Vanbrugh’s time; men can behave badly and cheat on their wives but if women do the same, the consequences are much greater. However, it’s also clear that men’s reputations in society can be damaged and men are therefore respected much more if they treat their wives well. Sir John Brute emotionally and physically abuses his wife, but he doesn’t get off scott free – he’s excluded from the male group because of how he treats his wife and at the end he realises that he’s irreparably damaged his relationship. The play is forward-thinking in the sense that it doesn’t condone Sir John’s behaviour and it encourages women to be outspoken and to be their husbands’ intellectual equals. Belinda is the best example of this; she’s the most outspoken woman in the play and Heartfree falls in love with her right away. He enjoys her bold teasing of him and men in general and she is never punished for her opinions. There were many restrictions if you were a woman in the late 17th century, but in Vanbrugh’s time women were emerging from behind closed doors to take a place on the public stage. It was at that time when the first English actresses were allowed on stage – it all started then and you can see that reflected in the boldness of Vanbrugh’s female characters.
Have you made many changes to accommodate the different space at The Hope Theatre?
A: At The White Bear Theatre, we had the audience on two sides – at The Hope Theatre we’ll have them on three. We’re adapting it to a thrust stage, which won’t take much adjustment to the blocking. Because I initially blocked the play so that the actors are in almost constant motion, they’re never blocking one side of the audience for long and the stage picture is constantly changing. Restoration comedy needs that dynamic staging because there are a great many entrances and exits – there’s a restless energy to the whole thing, which will work well in The Hope space. Vanbrugh thinks it’s funny to have lots of running on and off stage, and we’re capitalising on that to give even the transitions a lot of energy and to propel the action forward.
Is it an entirely new cast?
A: It’s the same cast which I’m thrilled about – the characters that each of them has created are so fun and if one of them was missing it would change the whole dynamic. They make each other laugh too so they’re always having a good time, both back stage and on it.
Finally, what’s your favourite moment in the play?
A: There’s a moment when Constant realises that Lady Brute fancies him, and he’s so excited to tell his best friend Heartfree, but when he’s trying to explain how he knows this, he realises that Lady Brute didn’t give him confirmation of her love at all. It’s a wonderful moment of miscommunication between the sexes; the audience is processing the confusing message at the same time as Constant, and watching him go from the ecstatic high of new romance, to the crashing realisation that he might have misunderstood, is priceless.
THE PROVOKED WIFE by John Vanbrugh
The Hope Theatre, Islington 5 – 23 September 2017
"Marriage is a slippery thing…"
Vanbrugh’s 1697 comedy is relocated to a modern music festival where revellers drink, dance and get up to mischief. The Provoked Wife comes to the Hope
Theatre after a sell-out summer run at the White Bear Theatre. Sir John Brute has only been married two years and he’s already sick of it; nothing but drinking can ease the burden. The marriage is equally tedious for his wife, Lady Brute. Temptation arrives in the form of a young man and Lady Brute decides to liven up her love life. But when the scheming Lady Fanciful gets wind of it, she means to expose the scandal no matter the cost. Champagne is popped and secret loves revealed, but whether all will end happily is anyone’s guess. This is Restoration for a new generation.