Non-stop fun is the stamp of Loveday Ingram’s exuberant, and very sexy production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover for the RSC, in the perfectly proportioned Swan Theatre, Stratford. Complete with hysterical Flamenco forays, touches of tango, a stilt walker, and excellent on-stage band. With a Conchita Wurst look-alike, the bearded lady boy among a tranch of devil masks, in what is very nearly The Rover – The Musical, I half expected someone to break out into Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.
Except Naples is the setting for the late 17th Century Restoration play, at Carnival, to turn everyone’s Worlds upside down, then restore them to the same old cynical order. A steely 1920’s cast-iron stairwell backs the simple set, to represent both the keys to the Kingdom and the Whorehouse, in a very hard world, and for the arrival of four exiled English Cavaliers led by Belvile and our particular Don Giovanni, Millmore: Very possibly modelled on the notorious Earl of Rochester, he who penned poems about dildos and things and died at 33 of booze, syphilis, and genius. This production is good Karma, with The Libertine about Rochester’s life on at the Theatre Royal in London, and Millmore is played with wonderful gusto and skilled comic timing by Joseph Millson, giving a tour de force performance he revels in.
From the moment the Prologue is given to the charming and excellent Faye Castelow though, playing Millmore’s equal-to-be, Helena, so that we really know this play was written by a woman, indeed the first English female dramatist and also a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, we are in safe directorial hands. A knowing self-awareness breathes through all the strong performances, that liberates everyone to many kinds of play. Since Millmore is trying to play fast and loose with every pretty woman that meets his eye, so the director’s cuts have played loose too and streamlined things well, if you wonder if cries of “Mummy” or “Kinky” are quite 17th Century.
Then they have gone for knockabout comedy, and ad libs too, including some great audience interaction, not least when Millmore is drunk, that always delights a crowd. If turning a line about old men and impotence on a greying member of an audience that seemed predominantly over sixty might have been a bit close to the bone! No pulling of punches here then, in the lusty manhood stakes. The climax, with an explosion of rose petals from the ceiling, nearly had people up and dancing on their feet and crutches.
This Rover certainly underplays the darker side of Behn’s play, based on one by Thomas Killigrew, where even the finest women could hardly avoid being labelled Wife, Nun, or Whore. The shadows grow in the story of the very funny and then nasty Blunt, the stuttering English Gent with his hand on the purse strings, played wonderfully by Leander Deeny, who is gulled by a prostitute, described in the original cast list as a ‘jilting wench’, into believing he has found true love. There is little time in life’s seething energy for his brand of hurt though, his hatred of being laughed at, so he is driven off stage in the first half by the semi-demonic revellers. Only to return demonically himself in the second half on the edge of doing something very nasty indeed, where a comedy edges toward potential tragedy, to remind us what can happen in the real world.
What is revolutionary in Aphra Behn, and so provides the explosive energy of poetry and thought throughout, is her ‘feminism’ is no mere complaint about manly men, hate of them either, but a cry for woman to be equal in all. Or at least her and Millmore, since by the end you do believe the pair on stage have found their true match. Thus it is two sisters and their kinswoman who set the plot in true motion too, as Florinda longs for Belvile and Helena refuses to disappear into a nunnery. So, disguised as gypsies, they hit the town like the Cavaliers and paint it red.
The main plot sees the honourable Belvile trying to find his lady, against the machinations of the nasty foreigners trying to arrange marriages, and along with a joke about drawing the longest sword, a Toledo blade, a pair of splendid guilded boxer shorts appear, belonging to a very good Don Pedro, endless filthy double entendres ensue, and there’s even a burst of Rule Britannia. The secondary plot involves the Courtesan Angellica Bianca, and since Behn lived when the theatre was very close to the brothel, perhaps reflecting her own initials and sentiments too, who falls for lusty Millmore. Alexandra Gilbreath is both moving and funny as the whore who gives her ‘virgin heart’ away, to no avail. Though a special mention for her slinking side-kick in a bowler, Alison Mckenzie’s knowing Moretta, who gives a nod to Joel Gray’s compere in Cabaret. This is a world that in truth seethed with violence, sex and fear, where a true Courtesan might make much of herself, but the whore and the poor always paid the price in the end, although Blunt shows men can be victims too. Though since Behn was a Royalist – the play is also called The Banish’d Cavaliers – it is Millmore’s poverty, along with his wit and courage, that gives him his nobility and wins him the prize; not only Helena, but her lovely fortune.
You can read reviews of King Lear and Cymbeline below. David Clement-Davies
The photo shows Faye Castelow and Joseph Millson as Helena and Millmore in the RSC’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, in the Swan Theatre Stratford. Copyright Ellie Kurttz.