Phillip Breen does something rare in his revival of Sir John Vanbrugh’s 1697 comedy. He stages it in period and casts it on traditional gender lines. However unfashionable, it seems exactly the right approach because the play is a fascinating social document about the problems posed by a bad marriage at a time when divorce was difficult. But, while I welcome Breen’s respect for Vanbrugh, a pleasurable evening would be sharpened by some judicious trimming.
The play itself poses a moral problem. Sir John Brute is a bullying drunk who married his wife because she wouldn’t sleep with him otherwise. She, in turn, wed him for his money. After two years, their marriage has become a living hell. The big question is whether Lady Brute should surrender to a would-be lover, Constant. There are side plots, involving an ageing coquette’s exposure and a cynical bachelor’s discovery of passion. But at the core of the play is the issue of whether adultery is the only sensible escape when wedlock turns to deadlock. Vanbrugh, who gave up drama to design Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, was a realist at heart, and few plays in British drama offer such an unsparing portrait of a soured relationship. The difficulty today is finding anything funny in the character of Brute.
David Garrick, who played the part in the 1770s, apparently indicated he was still a gentleman under his riotous excesses. Jonathan Slinger offers no such consolation but has the glazed look – and red nose – of the born sot, and rightly does nothing to soften Brute’s attempted rape of his wife. It is a rigorously unsentimental performance that only becomes comic in the scene where Slinger, donning female attire in a night brawl, ogles the Watch in a way that suggests, as Jack Lemmon did in Some Like It Hot, he is starting relish his disguise.
Mostly, however, the laughs in this production come from other sources. Alexandra Gilbreath is genuinely funny as a Lady Brute torn between conscience and desire. Told by her niece that she should follow the biblical injunction and counter evil with good, she swiftly replies: “That may be a mistake in the translation.” Amorously accosted by Constant, she also cries “Heavens, let me go” in a voice rich in witty ambivalence. The other standout performance is by John Hodgkinson as the caustic bachelor, Heartfree, who, like Shakespeare’s Benedick, is ensnared by love; there is more than a touch of Donald Sinden about the way Hodgkinson, dwelling on his nocturnal dreams, shoots reproving glances at the audience for our supposedly filthy minds.
Vanbrugh’s satire on a randy oldster, Lady Fancyfull, now seems dated and, although Caroline Quentin plays her with berouged vigour, it is a mistake to include the action-clogging songs the character composes to celebrate her own beauty. But there are lively performances from Rufus Hound as the impassioned Constant, Natalie Dew as Lady Brute’s niece and Sarah Twomey as a mischievous French maid. Even if there is too much of it, it is a good evening that honours an important play and reminds us that Vanbrugh was one of the first dramatists to pin down the torture of a loveless marriage.
• At the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 7 September.