While researching my dissertation on Aphra Behn, I found her short-lived career as a spy fascinating. When I picked up The Rover its alternative title of The Banish’d Cavaliers made me wonder – what did those flamboyant losers of the English Civil Wars get up to when Oliver Cromwell was in power? And so the seeds for my Royalist spy Lady Laurette Miles were sown.
“My brothers are too busy acting the soldier and enjoying the doxies of Italy and Spain to worry about their little sister.” – Laurette, A Treachery Of Spies
For me, The Rover is I Know What Laurette’s Brothers Did That Summer. Set in Naples during carnival time, I loved reading about the adventures of Willmore, Belville, Hellena and Florinda. But reading does not compare to seeing a play and The Rover is rarely performed. So I leapt at the opportunity – and buy button – when my friend told me The Royal Shakespeare Company was to stage it in Stratford-upon-Avon.
In The Night Garden
Seeing a play before press night is always a mixture of excitement and trepidation. There are no reviews so you have no preconceptions. But, as we took our seats, I already felt reassured by the staging. The wrought-iron balconies looked very New Orleans and there was some excellent musicians and dancers giving a carnival feel.
The production values throughout were exceptional. There was a suggestion of the seventeenth century but not a slavish adherence to it. In fact I swear I’d seen the tight-fitting red trousers of a certain young ‘gypsy’ in H&M. Even the governess carried a cocktail.
What was also clever was how the masks evoked the dark side of the carnival. Think Chicago meets The Musketeers. And as for what they do with the stage direction “Enter Blunt drest in a Spanish Habit, looking very ridiculously”… Genius.
— Shepperd-Fox (@shepperdfox) 16 September 2016
An explosion of sexy bawdiness
From the beginning, the cast exploded onto the stage, revelling in the farce and the fast pace. With Shakespeare it usually takes at least ten minutes for my ears to adjust to the rhythm of the text. Not so with Behn’s words. They seemed so fresh that I thought there may have been some judicious editing. But no, on re-reading the text of The Rover by Aphra Behn to find the quotes for this article, it turns out it really is that good.
Now they’re into the run, hopefully they will leave more time for applause. It was a shame the almost pantomime “Let the voices carry it, for Heaven or for the Captain?” question to the audience took everyone by surprise. But these timing issues can all be ironed out.
‘Thou stinkest of tar and rope ends’
All the cast are on top form. Even as they exit we saw Belville reacting to being jostled by a guy on stilts. But Robert “love and mirth are my business” Willmore steals the show. He arrived in the best Blackadder’s Lord Flash Heart/ Errol Flynn style and didn’t let up. Willmore is a cad and a bounder of the highest order, asking
What the devil should I do with a virtuous woman?
and bragging about enjoying
All the honey of matrimony, but none of the sting
But he’s the very definition of a loveable rogue. Willmore is on a couple of days’ shore leave from playing pirate for Prince Rupert, falling in lust with any female that crosses his path. Courtesans are referred to by the euphemism of ‘Roses’, and his line:
Fair one, would you give me leave to gather at your bush?
brought the house down. Never did I think I’d applaud The Last Kingdom‘s Uhtred, son of Uhtred’s treacherous uncle, but Joseph Millson is irresistible. Some clever ad-libbing as props failed and timings went awry just added to the fun.
‘They draw and fight’
If you’re going to swashbuckle, you need a Fight Director and Terry King is a master at it. No ‘left, right, aargh!’ cop-out here but brilliantly choreographed action which was expertly delivered.
I was also very happy to understand the Toledo line after researching my novel’s climatic sword fight. The Spanish steel made in Toledo was longer than a usual sword, which is why Don Pedro was always going to win that particular comparison.
As subversive as Aphra Behn herself
Aphra Behn is notorious for playing with gender roles and hinting at lesbianism. Faye Castelow, as the heroine Hellana, is to be applauded for her masterful delivery of:
I should have stayed in the nunnery still, if I had liked my Lady Abbess as well as she liked me.
Behn purposefully toys with preconceptions. Hellena, the mischievous heroine, is referred to as a devil and surely the ‘Hell’ in her name is not accidental? In contrast the famous courtesan is called the more innocent-sounding Angellica Bianca, who has the same initials as Aphra Behn. Again, this is not just by chance.
It would be easy to play Angellica for laughs and to make her pitiful. However Alexandra Gilbreath’s passionate, dignified portrayal of the heartless courtesan who has lost her heart to the fickle Willmore made us sympathise with her. Certainly Willmore’s behaviour is worthy of a Chicago‘s Cell Block Tango ‘He had it coming’ verse.
The production also doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable plotline of a Cavalier duped by a prostitute wanting to take his revenge on an innocent woman.
Let’s see her, I can soon discover whether she be of quality or for your diversion
There was much nervous laughter as that scene runs very close to the bone. But the darkness of the second half is a perfect counterpoint to the lightness of the first.
The charming Willmore in person
I’ve embedded some tweets which have photos so you can get a flavour of the production. Quite rightly, audience members can’t video or photograph the play. So here’s the lead with his Willmore beard, but without the Brian Blessed-like delivery. To quote from the play, he is a “proper handsome fellow” who is indeed doing “good service” with this brilliant initiative for would-be actors:
Best seats at the Swan Theatre?
On a school trip mutter-mutter years ago, our guide told us that the actors in The Swan could see every face in the audience because of the great sight-lines. Our seats were H34 and H35 at the back of the stalls and our view was excellent.
Everyone envied the side front rows though who were invited to dance, check if a misbehaving moustache was stuck on and even given doublets to hold during sword fights. It’s that kind of show. Book your tickets now.
About the reviewer
H.J. Reynolds has written an historical action adventure about Royalist spies in Oliver Cromwell’s England. The first draft of 90,000 words is complete and she is seeking a literary agent. Contact her at helen[at]hjreynolds.co.uk