by John Vanbrugh
Directed by Phillip Breen
2 May – 7 September 2019
Reviewed by Andrew Whiffin
This is an unusual treat: to be offered a period play exactly as written – without contemporary parallels being pointed by modern dress or gender fluidity – and allowed to make one’s own observations about the playwright’s time and attitudes and our own. Although director Phillip Breen’s illuminating essay in the programme draws several very stimulating comparisons, what we see is Vanbrugh’s 1697 vision of the battle of the sexes, and for a ‘restoration comedy’, that vision is strikingly bleak.
Sir John Brute has married his wife for sex, and she him for money, and both are disappointed by the result. He takes to drink and she is tempted by the attentions of Rufus Hound’s Constant. Meanwhile, Sir John’s niece Bellinda (Natalie Dew) catches the eye of confirmed bachelor Heartfree, Constant’s friend, and makes it even less likely that he will succumb to the dubious charms of Lady Fancyfull, whose pursuit of him forms the comic subplot.
Mark Bailey’s set also has a proper Restoration feel, with red and gold proscenium curtains, and footlights lining the edge of the stage, and Paddy Cunneen’s music, played by a costumed onstage band of five, feels just right for the period too, especially in its spirited rendering of Vanbrugh’s songs. Breen even respects the integrity of the text by leaving uncut the passages of moral introspection and self-analysis which lengthen the play without advancing the plot, and it is to the credit of the excellent cast that more than three hours seem to pass so quickly.
Jonathan Slinger’s Sir John is a revelation: embittered and dissolute, but still realistic, intelligent and not entirely unsympathetic, even in the grotesque slapstick of the scene in which he parades drunkenly around London in his wife’s dress. Alexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is just as nuanced – full of feeling and understanding, but torn by moral scruples. It is a fascinating analysis of relationship. Hound is admirably clear as Constant, as is John Hodgkinson as Heartfree, although his casting, as a sonorous, statuesque sixty-year-old, jars a little with the apparent object of his affections, Dew’s youthful and self-aware Bellinda. As Lady Fancyfull, Caroline Quentin is a delight, perfectly in control of the comedy, and sparring beautifully with Sarah Twomey’s pert and spirited maid, Mademoiselle.
So we are left with an interesting range of emotions about the play – flawed in structure and, perhaps, argument, but with undeniable dramatic sense, and a troubling and convincing vision of the unresolvable complexity of human relations.