There’s something special about fin-de-siecle anger in any century: this is from 1697, years later than Wycherley and the mellower Sheridan, and best described as a furious sex-comedy wrapped around real tragedy.
A vicious, drunken rich husband, Brute, eloquently hates his wife and resents the whole entrapment of matrimony – “If I were married to a hogshead of claret I would hate it!”. Poor Lady Brute once “thought I had charms enough to govern him..” but didn’t. Their bickering (sharp, funny, this is the author John Vanburgh at the top of his game) is so poisonous that with her niece Belinda she plots to cuckold him with a handy gallant, just for vengeance. In a playfully daring argument, very much of the period , she explains that the scriptural ban on infidelity”might be a mistake in the translation”.
There are two available men – John Hodgkinson’s aquiline, grey-suited cynic Heartfree, who against his will eventually falls for Belinda, and the more naive and gilded Constant (Rufus Hound) who fancies Lady Brute. Meanwhile Caroline Quentin, in crazy rouged-clown makeup, foot-high ginger wig and patisserie-frilled crinoline, is Lady Fancifull. She is teased by Heartfree , sets her cap at him and adds to the chaos..
It is the usual Restoration affair of masks, ruses, meetings, and razor-sharp mutual insults between the sexes. Cheeky assaults are made on the fourth wall, and the laughs keep coming. Jonathan Slinger’s dissipated Brute ends up, for no very good reason, being arrested drunk in a woman’s dress: he puts on a bravura display of shrill camp violence as he wipes out the watch and insults the Justice. Quentin’s Fancifull too is all one could ask this side of an actual pantomime dame, as she pirouettes surrounded by looking-glasses on sticks.
The comedy is excellent, the Restoration wordiness enlivened by some terrific movement direction by Ayse Tashkiran – Fancifull’s obedient household rarely move at less than a fast scuttle . There are a couple of rather lovely songs , and Sarah Twomey as a bravura bilingual French maid. Incidentally, this and next week’s Venice Preserved mark the RSC debut of Les Dennis: possibly the first time someone gets both a Stratford debut and an award for Best Ugly Sister in the same month. He’s not too busy in this – just a bit of fine drunken collapsing, and a spry participation in the scuttling entourage. But very welcome.
The tragedy, though, is real and angry: it is the living death of Lady Brute, and the horribly well-evoked depressive nastiness and cowardly despair of her husband. Alexandra Gilbreath is stunning: she moves from an initial playfulness, coyly carnal as she plots her affair, into later moments of intense and queenly stillness as Brute grows filthier and more violent. We are told Vanbrugh wrote the part , darker than in his first play, for Elizabeth Barry, an experienced tragedienne. It shows. When the sodden and bloodstained Brute violently kisses then tries to rape her – smearing her , glorying in making her filthy as him – it is one of the nastiest scenes of the year, for all the frills and furbelows. Her face, and dutiful shuddering curtsey afterwards , tell all. The central tragedy is simply that she is stuck with him. And his power.
Vanbrugh was a phenomenon: shipping agent commented for bravery under fire, four years a prisoner in France, he came home and wrote two comedies – this being the second – before turning into an architect and designing Castle Howard. Historically, he is credited by director Philip Breen with influences on both Tennessee Williams (is Blanche Dubois just Lady Fancifull, with added pathos?) and Pinter; his trio of men – lover, husband, sceptic – he links to the three in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. But few other writers simultaneously evoke quite the savage cynicism, torrential verbal wit and real anger of this slightly alarming and ceaselessly entertaining piece about men, women, and social hypocrisies. When Heartfree – who has fallen genuinely in love – and the yearning Constant have a rare moment of insight together, they define with sudden odd beauty what is lost in libertinism: “To be capable of loving one is better than to possess a thousand”.
box office rsc.org.uk to 7 Sept