A spy for King Charles II whose travels took her as far as South America, and a successful female playwright at a time when a woman’s place was strictly in the drawing room and the bedroom – the extraordinary life of Aphra Behn herself sets the bar for drama high indeed; but her most successful play The Rover doesn't fail to rise to the challenge.
The Rover is an awkward creature for contemporary audiences and directors alike; working within the established conventions of Restoration drama, and particularly the sex comedies of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve, Behn creates a brutal world of violence, lust and deceit, in which women are the commodity of choice, and the men, though gentle in name, are far from it by nature. Rape is an ever-present threat, and murder always lurking just beyond the margins of the play’s action. Yet somehow, through the twistings of plots and intrigues, Behn’s women emerge from behind their carnival masks triumphant – the victors in the hard-fought battles of the sexes.
Set it Naples at carnival time, the play is peopled with a cast of English aristocrats exiled by the interregnum, and cut off not only from the society and status of home, but also from its manners and morals. At its centre we have Willlmore, the rover of the title, a naval captain with an insatiable appetite for violence and women – ideally both at the same time. His passions, though spread broadly about, are focused chiefly upon two very different objects: the beautiful courtesan Angellica, and convent-bound heiress Helena. His friend and companion Belvile meanwhile is in love with Helena’s sister Florinda, and hindered in his suit by his lack of fortune and the self-serving ambitions of her brother and protector Don Pedro. Assorted pimps, prostitutes and English innocents supplement the action, but it is the pairings and schemings of these characters that form the central spine.
Naomi Jones’ production seeks to recreate an authentic 18th century energy and informality. Moving with the cast between the bar and main theatre space itself, the audience at times become voyeurs on the bedchamber antics of the characters, and at others fellow revellers, lost among the crowds. While the idea is an intelligent one, in practice it makes the play’s complicated plot and mid-action opening almost impossible to follow, and fails to gain in atmosphere what it lacks in clarity. The minimally designed theatre space works well however, making full use of the atmospheric subterranean setting of the theatre, and creating a real sense of the dark alleys and passageways of the city.
Among the cast it's Natalie Macaluso as Helena who really charms and commands attention. Behn’s Helena, with her playful wit and dynamic energy, owes more than a little debt to Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Rosaline – a heritage that Macaluso made pleasingly obvious. The play stands or falls with the tension and battle of wits between Helena and Wilmore, and Sam Wilkin proves an able, if not outstanding participant. His Wilmore sits somewhere between Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart and American Pie’s Stiffler – a sex-crazed (but essentially well-meaning) blaggard, whose swagger can generally be relied upon to get him out of trouble. The part is a hard one to pitch, for this ‘hero’ is a would-be rapist, whose actions threaten the safety and fortune of almost all the central figures, leaving Angellica broken and seeking blood, and very nearly robbing Florinda of her virtue and her lover. Wilkin does succeed in capturing the larky and incorrigible innocence of the figure, unaware of the trail of destruction he leaves behind him, yet fails to bring the stature and substance that would truly make him Helena’s equal.
Supporting roles are almost universally strong, but particular mention should be made of Catherine Skinner, who evidently relishes her role as scheming prostitute Lucetta – forging some of the comedic highlights of the evening – while bringing a sweet and entirely contrasting sensibility to the role of Valeria. Asura Onashile also shines, rendering not only Angellica’s haughty disdain but also her later vulnerable submission painfully credible.