INTERVIEW: Phillip Breen on directing The Provoked Wife at the RSC

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Phillip Breen. Left, Alexandra Gilbreath as Lady Brute with Jonathan Slinger as Sir Brute. Photo: Pete Le May/RSC

Confessing all at the comedy altar…

Director Phillip Breen tells Gill Sutherland about putting on John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife at The Swan Theatre.

Let’s start with how you came to be directing The Provoked Wife. I read it some years ago and it was put to me as a potential show for this slot. I had really wanted to do a tragedy as I had done comedies here. There were three plays that were in the mix, this was the only comedy. In the end I had to confess the one I enjoyed reading the most was The Provoked Wife. You know when first reading a play you make notes and underline things, I just wanted to underline everything.

What were the tragedies that you dismissed?! I’m not at liberty to say. They may be in future repertoire.

After you’d done The Hypocrite in 2017 had there been a plan to come back to the RSC? Yes always. It’s a cliché but it feels like a spiritual home. I trained under Terry Hands and came to work here in 2005. Growing up in Liverpool I never went to London to watch plays I came here, so the RSC has been in my life since I was 12.
Then of course hearing about the old days from Terry, then coming here to assist Greg [Doran] and Nancy Meckler… and of course I lived in Stratford for a long time, but I now live in London. I love coming back and it remains uniquely exciting to me; and the Swan is one of the most lovely theatres in the world. I don’t need a second invite.

On to The Provoked Wife. You’ve written a very interesting article in the programme… basically suggesting that Vanbrugh is the most plundered playwright. Discuss! Yes, all playwrights are aware of what’s gone before. And I’m convinced Pinter drew on this play. Don’t forget that The Provoked Wife was one of the most successful plays ever written. It ran for nearly 100 years – it had a kind of unbroken spell on the London stage up until the 20th century, when it fell out of fashion.
It seems to me that after you’ve read Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the back end of the restoration you would pick up Vanbrugh and go OK. Tennessee Williams was a great devourer of other plays, and it seems highly likely he knew The Provoked Wife, and deliberately nicked from it.
It’s interesting that the poetic ideas, the dramatic structure, and the characters are very similar when great writers come to tackle the thorny issue of sex comedies and marriage plays, and you can see it running through from this play into Williams, Pinter, Ibsen DH Lawrence, and I’m sure there’s many more.
This play and a lot Pinter plays just end and nothing is resolved.

It’s been called a ‘modern’ play… Yes that’s something I tackled in my article. This idea that in Vanbrugh’s time people were somehow less sophisticated or knew less is ridiculous. This idea that nowadays, in the internet age, we are unshockable but back then they were all uptight and shockable is absolute nonsense. We have never been more shockable and reactionary as we are now! People were building pyramids 5,000 years ago – and have been very sophisticated for a very long time.

What are you hoping to bring out in the drama? I wanted to give a very clear account of a very sophisticated and nuanced play. I didn’t want to serve up the idea of a ‘restoration comedy’. Our expectation of that nowadays is actually a 20th-century invention – the costumes and what have you came out of the Lyric Theatre in the last century; it’s a latter interpretation. The theatre during the restoration was more vibrant and real – excuse the cliché. It was a much more forward-thinking place. After the restoration there were only two licensed theatres and possibly 40 actors – so you can imagine the quality of that actor, how good you have to be to be one of the 40. So what that created was very exclusive, sophisticated audience with virtuoso actors – this play has got an incredible difficulty to it. Vanbrugh has writing hard parts: shifts of emotions, long and short sentences – he writes for a crack team of geniuses.

Caroline Quentin (Lady Fancyfull)

You’ve got a great cast – how did you go about casting it? I try and get Alexandra Gilbreath  [who plays Lady Brute] in everything ever since we did Merry Wives of Windsor [at the RSC in 2012] – we had a great time on that. Weirdly she had done Provoked Wife at drama school, so she knew the play and said she would love to do it so that began it… I needed people with an extraordinary facility for language. This is a play of extraordinary technical difficulty so you need concert-level musicians to play the notes – it’s just hard. It’s been a stretch for all of us and there are some extraordinarily experienced actors in the cast, not least Jonathan Slinger who’s played Hamlet, Richard II and III, Prospero, Malvolio, Macbeth – the lot.

Had you worked with Jonathan Slinger, who plays Sir Brute, before? Yes, as an assistant and I’ve written a book on him. It was called Actor’s Shakespeare – a series on extended essays by academics on actors they admire and I was asked to write one so I chose Slinger.
I’m a massive fan of his work. I asked him to play Brute – he read Provoked Wife and really liked it and said yes. He’s amazing, this might be his finest hour – he’s brilliant.
Rufus [Hound] I know through friends, and he was great in Don Quixote. He’s very different in this – again amazing. All the cast are real heavyweights and it needs that. I asked and got lucky.

What about the humour? The Hypocrite was so gag-filled – has this got gags, is it funny language? It’s comedy in the truly Shakespeare sense – The Hypocrite is line for line the funnies play I’ve ever directed. This is much darker, more nuanced – it paints a real picture of a real marriage in which the wife doesn’t love the husband, and he’s gone to seed. There’s also moments of gut-wrenching drama and violence. Your readers shouldn’t come expecting The Hypocrite – they will be disappointed. This is a proper grown-up adult evening in the theatre about serious weighty matters. I liken it to Coward’s Private Lives – but not the cliché version; we take it really seriously, and it’s better for it.

The morality in the play is interesting, again seemingly modern… That because Brute is a cad, we are somehow put in the position of finding his wife’s pursuit of an extramarital affair understandable…
I rail against this idea of it being a modern dilemma – ever since there’s been marriage there’s been the notion of waking up and realising ‘oh my God I’ve married the wrong person’.

We identify with the characters – the play is of course relevant still. Without wanting to sound too pretentious I like to make plays that feel like the best bits of going to church – where everyone goes on stage and confesses their sins and we all feel a bit better. To say that we are now more sophisticated, unshockable, get divorced more easily now that we are atheists is just such a load of crap! It’s based on the idea that we are dealing with primitive playwrights, and we are not! Vanbrugh spent three years as a political prisoner in the Bastille and then designed Castle Howard and Blenheim – this is a major brain and mover and shaker, and who came from working stock like Shakespeare.

Before we wrap up – you’ve done an amazing array of work, including a lot in Japan. In fact you just directed a Vivienne Westwood catwalk show… Yes, these trousers were a gift [indicates fancy black trousers] from Vivienne – she’s a friend, and a genius! And yes earlier this year I adapted Crime and Punishment for a production in Tokyo – and a film version is about to open.

Anything coming up in the future – is there a masterplan? Not really any plan – just perhaps a belief that I would rather be Tennessee Williams rather than Arthur Miller, and that all plays are comedies, and ultimately have to be funny until they are not funny any more and that’s when they become interesting.
I’m working on a fourth play – and a musical with my girlfriend [novelist and songwriter Eva Rice] based on Jilly Cooper’s novel Harriet.

Lastly, what’s the secret of doing good comedy? Oh man alive! First of all I was appalled to see the blurb for this in the RSC promotion: ‘Phillip Breen brings his comedy Midas touch’! I’d rather it said ‘with an indifferent patchy record’. I’d rather people were pleasantly surprised.
I don’t know… it’s probably always to be truthful. There’s huge sadness in comedy and likewise huge laughter in tragedy. Allow for foibles, warmth and love.

The Provoked Wife is on until 7th September. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk/the-provoked-wife/