Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 4 July, 2003

Well, here's a thing. Paul Jepson's modern-day staging of Vanbrugh's comedy The Provoked Wife (so modern it even restores that missing "e" to the original "Provok'd") is endlessly witty and inventive, and a world away from high-concept directorial visions that warp the play to fit their own idée fixe. Everything here is done in service of the piece. But, even whilst laughing in admiration and delight at Jepson and his cast of eight's fertile minds and energetic performances, you know in your heart that it isn't really working.

The move from the milieu of Restoration foppery to contemporary London "mediocracy" is an astute one: here, too, is a cliquey and incestuous little world. So, Heartfree becomes a columnist for Sight & Sound, and Lady Fanciful's ludicrous affectations of costume and accent become mock-London-Jamaican: Jane Galloway's Fanciful is an ageing "wigger", mutton dressed as raggamuffin. And it's a pleasure to see Mike Hayley in a variety of minor roles from a campy American tailor to a stone-faced Michael Caine of a valet.

The problem is that the play has been updated at all.  I say this not as a matter of reactionary principle, but of practical results. As soon as you take the decision to modernise, you're going to be assailed by inconsistencies; not little things like Constant's line "I wear a sword, sir" being accompanied by a martial-arts stance rather than any Toledo steel, that's incidental. I mean more pervasive matters such as how you reconcile the classless media world with the patrician vocal drawl necessary for delivering all those "zounds"es and "oons"es. Simon Merrells as Sir John Brute tries to counterbalance things by putting his all into a rollicking rakehell portrayal, but part of the scandal of Brute's behaviour is that he's simply a much older man than Merrells.

The central flaw is that of the world of the play overall.  Meeja types may, at least in caricature, be as libertine and duplicitous as Vanbrugh's gentry; but crucially, there's nothing like such a rigid canon of social and sexual morality for such conduct to offend against. The shock value of the play in 1697 is not just absent, but rendered impossible. Superficial laughs aplenty, and an honourable attempt, but at bottom a failure.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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