Theatre Review: The Rover

 


Photo credit: Zabowski via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

The Rover by Aphra Behn; Directed by Eamon Flack

Cast: Gareth Davies, Andre de Vanny, Taylor Ferguson, Leon Ford, Nathan Lovejoy, Elizabeth Nabben, Toby Schmitz, Nikki Shiels, Kiruna Stamell, Megan Wilding

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until August 6

I was so looking forward to seeing this play, to seeing Aphra Behn psyche on stage. I’d never seen her work brought to life. This was going to be my first time.

The show was fun, funny, exhuberent, raunchy and altogether, very, very big! It was set in a Naples carnivale-mardi gras and the look and tempo of the performance was of a circus side-show – excitement and otherness was paraded and celebrated. There was lots of physical stage business, lots of sight gags and buffoonery. Their comic timing was impeccable. It seems like every comic device was employed to get a laugh – and received it. The cast played it up to the audience on every opportunity. The way that the sight gags were unravelled- or in the case of Gareth Davies, disrobed – was luxiourously allowed to develop and grow and build mirth with each prolonging gesture. In their silence and indulgence in each mime-like, clownish nuance (or drunken slip and crawl – in the case of Toby Schmitz’s beleaguered attempt to climb his courtesan’s window) there was no holding back – no skimping on the possibility to draw out the laughter. Megan Wilding, as Lucetta and Moretta was masterful in the way she played the audience – cajoling them with unencumbered silence, coyly approaching her lover, pulling faces, hammering obscenity or drawing out laughs with each puff of her cigarette. Beholdng such a spectacle was marvelling at their talents. Yet where was Aphra Behn in all of this business?

But she was there, you may point out. Just there, at the beginning of the play, an entr’acte all her own – her own soliliquy – her defence of her playwrighting and female playwrights. You may want to point out that Aphra Behn’s work is not so well known as Shakespeare’s and that the english used is obscure at times, so that following a verbose 350 year old play is aided by horsing around and bucking off the words. The problem is that in telling a story on the stage the physical metaphor that’s presented by the actors has to be felt to be understood. This metaphor was too often laid aside to keep its momentum as an emotional thread.

So, the first act was a joy ride, perhaps too much of one, as the second act paid the price for frittering away the opportunity to build the emotional connections between the lusty and the love-lorn. The first act down-played the script and up-played the physicality. There wasn’t enough attention to the script to build the empathy needed to allow the second act to reach its denouement plausibly. Toby Schmitz’s Willmore is more a larrikin than a cad who actually needs to fall in love to presumeably mend his roving ways and marry Helena (Taylor Ferguson).

Where the playwright makes her voice heard directly – via Angellica Bianca (Nikki Shiels) the noise and colour of the carnivale is muted by the veracity of Nikki Shiels’ performance driving home her point. Exotic, sensual, pitiable, garboesque, Nikki Shiels’ gave the story heart and intellect. We can feel for Bianca but in the convolutions of the storyline involving Don Pedro, Don Antonio, Belvile, Florinda, Willmore and Hellena, the suspense and subsequent release is missing.

With the number of jaunts into carnivale mode there was always the danger of big acting becoming ham acting. Big and ham are two differnt kinds of deliveries that look identical in performace photos but deliver different results in the auditorium. Foreign accents can blur the distinction too. Clowning and miming require big acting. Interject a steady stream of laughter and minimise the script, and big could devolve into ham. Ham doesn’t matter in the style of jokes being built – it probably aided them –  but it didn’t aid empathy to be drawn on in the second act.

The use of asides to explain obscure terms was a brilliant stroke and worked well with the carnivale atmosphere and the use of the whole auditorium as a performance space. The audience connected with the show. It was a lot of fun, a really good night out. The academic in me was left a little cheated but nothing too serious.

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Aphra Behn at the Belvoir!

Behn, Behn, Behn, Behn,  Behn . . .BeeeeeeeehhhN! I’m so excited! Aphra Behn! Aphra Behn! Aphra Behn at the Belvoir St Theatre! What a treat! Oohhh  . . . Behn! Behn! Behn! Behn! Aphra Behn . . . aaah!

What? What was that? Who/what is Aphra Behn? You don’t know? Okay, so if you’re a feminist, litterati you probably could fill me in, but if you’re not there’s a big possibility that you have no idea what or who I’m going on about. No, Aphra Behn is not an anti-frizz hair care product. She was a highly successful playwright of the English Restoration period – late 17th century. Touted as the first female playwright she claimed that her scandalous plays wouldn’t bat an eyelid if their writer were a man.

The Rover

Poet, prisoner, debtor, spy, wife, novelist, lesbian, feminist, playwright – she wore all of these hats. She was a successful female playwright who owned her works as a female at a time when writing for the professional theatre was new and old in London and definitely not a career choice for polite women. Why new and old? Obviously formal theatre productions in professional playhouses had been performed in London from the mid-late 1500s. Shakespeare’s most productive period was in the 1590s. But with the advent of the civil war the playhouses were closed down in 1642 and remained so during the Interegnum. Playacting was restricted to private performances. With the restoration of the monarchy came the restoration of the theatres in the 1660s.

This was perhaps a unique time when incumbent playwrights didn’t have an exclusive attraction to playing companies. A time where London had two professioanl theatres and, as old, a populace with a voracious appetite for plays – new plays. Plays that spoke to a people who had been violently divided and reunited. It was a time of peace and a time of renewel. Women graced the professional stage for the first time, replacing the boy actors of old. The Revenge tragedies so popular before the war would no longer dominate the programmes. Comedy of manners reigned and Aphra Behn wore the crown.

Aphra Behn’s works were very popular. She thinly veiled commentary on her times with allegory. Audiences saw through it, as was her intent, and loved it. Her Rover is playing at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre from July 1. Set in Naples at a time of carnivale, the Rover pits a player-cavalier against the woman who may serve him his comeuppance, a nun. Sounds Like fun? Director Eamon Flack promises a wild and high energy interpretation. He did a sparkling job on Twelfth Night last year. I can’t wait to see Behn’s battle of the sexes through his vision. The production stars Toby Schmitz and Nikki Shiels. I’m sure its going to be a treat.

Visit the Belvoir St website page for The Rover here.

 

Further Reading

Aphra Behn – Poet

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/aphra-behn

Aphra Behn on Project Gutenberg

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21339

Hartnol, Phyllis, The Theatre: A Concise History, Revised Edition, Thames and Hudson, 1968, 1985, Chapter 6:The English Restoration Theatre.

 

Photo Credit – The Rover

Photo credit: Zabowski via Foter.com / CC BY-ND