I wasn’t sure what to expect from a play written by the architect responsible for Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. The blurb from the RSC suggested it would be funny and, listening to Jonathan Slinger and Rufus Hound talk about it, it sounded as though the actors were enjoying it.
In some respects this is a typical restoration farce: you can tell a lot about the characters from their names. The main protagonists are Sir John Brute, his wife Lady Brute, Constant the would-be lover of Lady Brute, his friend Heartfree and Lady Fancyfull.
It is, essentially, the story of the Brute’s loveless marriage and ends with the situation unresolved. This makes it sound grim, and the abusive attitude of Sir John to his wife makes for an uncomfortable underlying theme, although there are a lot of laughs on the journey.
The women were particularly funny and well played by Alexandra Gilbreath, Caroline Quentin, Natalie Dew and Sarah Twomey. I always forget what good comic actors Gilbreath and Quentin are and in this production they seem to enjoy working together. My partner particularly enjoyed being flirted with by Lady Brute!
Of the male actors I thought Jonathan Slinger played a good Sir John. Most recently we’ve mainly seen him in more serious roles and I’d forgotten that he also does comedy well. John Hodgkinson was also good as Heartfree, with most of the best one-liners. Rufus Hound on the other hand was a bit disappointingly wooden. He just didn’t seem to inhabit his character, unlike when he played Sancho Panza, and at no point did I believe he was in love with Lady Brute.
There were also a number of named parts in the play who seemed a bit surplus to requirements. It almost felt as though their parts had been cut to the point there was little point to them. They were a short interruption into the main storyline and could have been dispensed with. Weird!#
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the play but I think that the fact I had the time to be interested in and notice the fabrics of the costumes and how they were made tells you how little impact it made on me.
Sorry Sir John Vanbrugh, your plays may have been very popular when they were first produced, but I think you were a better architect than playwright!