I've had a bit of a thing about Sir John Vanbrugh (soldier, spy, playwright, architect, and who knows what else besides) since student days when I first learnt about him in the context of his architectural achievements (principally Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace - which are perhaps even better pieces of theatre than his plays - which is saying something).
The 1995 production of 'The Relapse' at the RSC was on at the time I was studying him, it absolutely cemented my Vanbrugh fan status (it was an excellent production as well, one that really made me fall in love with both theatre generally, and the RSC specifically). I've been waiting for an opportunity to see another Vanbrugh play ever since, so you can imagine how excited I've been.
To add to the personal investment, this is only the second time in 12 years that I've managed to get my partner to see a play with me. He's not much of a theatre fan, and the only other thing (almost exactly a decade ago) that I got him to watch was a really bad Salome at Leicester's Curve theatre. It was so bad that he's been able to legitimately hold it against me ever since. Happily his interest in architecture made the lure of a Vanbrugh play to much to resist.
I'm not sure that he enjoyed it quite as much as I did, but I enjoyed it a lot, and we've finally agreed we can put Salome behind us. I did wonder beforehand if this performance could possibly live up to the expectations I had for it, but it exceeded them, and I'm really hoping that I might manage to see it a second time.
Lady Brute has married her husband for his money and position, he married her because he fancied her and she was too well connected to rape. Two years later they can't stand the sight of each other, his attraction has worn off, to be replaced by aggressive irritation. On the back of this she's inclined towards having an affair with her husbands friend, Constant, who fell in love with her when he saw her on her wedding day, and has been perusing her ever since. Constant's friend, Heartfree - a younger son of little fortune, and professed woman hater, has been flirting with Lady Fancyfull, but drops her when he meets Bellinda, Lady Brute's niece. Bellinda returns his interest, but neither are sure about marriage, and meanwhile Lady Fancyfull is bent on revenge...
There's a lot going on here, the first half is played mostly for laughs, the second half is much darker though, going beneath the obvious jokes about marriage to show just how awful it can be to find yourself tied to someone you really dislike. Lady Brute is her husbands property, she cannot leave him. He cannot get rid of her, and Bellinda who has a frontrow view of this toxic relationship has to try and decide what her own future should be.
Vanbrugh presents marriage as a tremendous risk for both parties, and leaves it like that. Sir John might be every bit the brute his name suggests, but it's hard not to feel some sympathy for him. It's easy to feel sympathy for Lady Brute in the face of her husbands actions, but hard to forget that it was vanity and greed that got her into this mess (she wanted a rich husband and assumed she had charms enough to govern him). Constant appears more as the serpent in the garden than salvation.
It's a beautiful production to look at, and the way music and song are used is tremendous as well, and there's any number of excellent performances. The one that really stood out though was Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute who just when he's been his most repellent finds the pathos in the character too.
See this play if you can.