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

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night

Belvoir St Theatre until 4th September
Directed by Eamon Flack

Twelfth Night

Shakespeare: boring; archaic; staid; difficult; artsy-fartsy; a chore. Not this production of Twelfth Night! Pacey. Clever. Colourful. Hilarious. A wealth of comic timing and techniques delivered expertly by well-training, long-practised artists. Jokes and wordplay written 400-plus years ago made clearer and extended by a physicality of performance and stage business that milks visual comedy. The cast is having a ball and the audience is invited. This is the Shakespeare production you drag your friends to so they can experience exactly why you like Shakespeare. They’ll love him too.
It’s so much fun, it’s easy to forget that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, that it’s questioned as to whether it’s a comedy at all. There is a depth in the play that this performance doesn’t touch. It’s a director’s quandary that to go the full distance with the questions that Shakespeare asks will destroy its happy ending. What’s a comedy without a happy ending? You see, Shakespeare questions who we love, why we love and can we love on demand? By tying up most of the loose ends at the end, the reader of the text can feel deflated. Antonio who bares so much love and risks his life for the young Sebastian is cast off in the slacking of Sebastian’s new-found lust in Olivia. Olivia, mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, spirits him off to a church. When Sebastian’s identity is revealed she accepts that he is not the person whose proxy-wooing captivated her and accepts him because he is male and looks like Cesario/Viola and they are now married. The purity and passion in these same-sex relationships is cast aside for a facile heterosexual denouement.
Is there satisfying elements to the ending of the text? Yes. Orsino, who has been denying his attraction to Cesario/Viola can safely love the female Cesario/Viola and Sir Toby Belch marries his match in hijinx, Maria. In reading the text one wonders whether in a freer society if Viola would pursue the bond she makes with Olivia or Orsino. This production doesn’t go that deep. Eamon Flack’s interpretation stays on the surface of the text. It’s the right decision for a satisfied audience at the end of the show. Not that he doesn’t touch on same-sex love at all. Casting a female, Amber McMahon, to play Sebastian may incite questioning along that line as much as it gets a laugh when Olivia, Anita Hegh, kisses him/her. It does create challenges for the actor playing Cesario/Viola, Nikki Shiels.
Cesario/Viola spends a large chunk of the play onstage. It is her journey that we follow and that drives the play forward. By choosing to keep the interpretation on the surface she spends a long time in bemusement at Olivia’s advances. It’s a really hard intension to maintain and maintain interest in. A subtlety in response to Olivia’s poetry is lacking that would have enriched the performance for the actor and the audience. Similarly, Sebastian could have been more fleshed out. But how far do you go before a comedy in performance becomes the tragi-comedy of the text?
It’s often asked, does it really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Would it change our enjoyment of them? Would it change their interpretation? In the case of Twelfth Night, William of Stratford is such an unknown creature that we can make of the play what we will. However, if the bisexual Earl of Oxford were believed to be the author then it would be harder to keep the interpretation on the surface. It would be seen as part of a tradition of plays that are homosexual in theme and openly questioning sexuality. But I digress.
While all of the performances were really good and the comedy well timed I have to make special mention of Keith Robinson as Feste. He entertained the audience as the court jester as much as the court of the play. In coming back from the intermission he opened the second act in a sit-down – stand-up of jokes of a contemporary nature that then blended back into the text really well. His facial expressions, his timing – he had the audience. Anita Hegh as Olivia made great contrast of austerity and unbridled passion that resulted in many laughs. Movement Director Scott Witt had the ensemble cast moving in a choreography that was always purposeful and visually effective. The cast dressed as clowns in a sanatorium and moving in a colourful but starkly bare stage reminded me of an ancient chorus. Their movement physicalized the inner life/turmoil of the shipwrecked Viola and compensated for the lack of props and setting elements a more realistic set could have offered. Witt’s movement direction completed Michael Hankin’s set.
Any production can be knit picked but this one is just too engaging. It’s just wonderful.

Thank you to Elly Baxter from Belvior Publicity and Public Affairs for permission to use their photos.