The Rover

Aphra Behn
Looking Glass House
Southwark Playhouse

Publicity photo

Southwark Playhouse provides the perfect backdrop for a sultry, sexy romp in a seventeenth-century Mediterranean resort. Courtesans and gallants chase their lustful paths along the stone flagstones, dodging each other and the audience, wearing sumptuous period costumes and donning madcap carnival masks. This is a Venetian night of revelry at its best, as the sound of water lapping against the side of Venice’s canals adds a coolness to the heady atmosphere of drunken excess.

The Rover is a Restoration classic. Written by part-time playwright, part-time Royalist spy, Aphra Behn, The Rover tells of the plight of Royalist cavaliers exiled by the interregnum – the fundamentalist lull between the death of Charles I and the return of his son, Charles II – who wander from European city to European city trying to satiate their appetites for love and adventure. Ennui rules these frustrated militarists.

The ‘Rover’ of the title is one Willmore, a braggartly drunken whoring wreck of a-man, whose sword is as swiftly unsheathed as are his breaches unfastened at the sight of any passing female. Willmore is destined to get himself and any woman into trouble. His friends are no less love-prone, as willing to rape a passing courtesan as they are to defend their honour to the death. Volatile people in a volatile world.

Director Naomi Jones has subtly transported Behn’s play, originally located in Naples, to this Venetian night-time frenzy. Electing to stage the play in a dual location, Jones sites the first dangerous act in the cavernous under-the-railway-arches Southwark Playhouse bar. Dangerous, because twenty-first-century wine-tipplers huddle together to escape the swish and swipe of several effective swordfights that erupt in their midst. A balcony above provides a suitable platform for the city’s most sought-after courtesans to ply their trade. Promenading at its most intimate.

Eventually we are ushered by excited Venetian revellers into our seats into another cavernous space, this time more traditionally set out as a traverse stage with central access points midway on each side. Real fire-lit torches flicker on the walls and a skewed chess-board locates a central acting space with ornate chaise longue to evoke its decadent atmosphere. Maximum potential for movement and concealment and a wonderful sense of involvement for the audience.

Involved we certainly are. We have already been introduced to three young Italian sisters who, if not all destined for the local convent, certainly might find their lives less complicated if they just packed their bags and entered the nunnery. Nevertheless, they elect to disguise themselves as wanton gypsies and experience one last night of hedonistic glee.

Of course, they love and are loved by the wayward English cavaliers. Of course the cavaliers also manage to offend the son of the local Spanish envoy. Of course this results in a battle for the affections of a particularly expensive courtesan whose charms are available to the highest bidder but whose integrity can still be slighted by the rejection of Willmore. Confused? Don’t be. Although the opening promenade section delayed the introduction of the characters because of a general lack of focus (and the audience’s sense of novelty and danger at its staging), all becomes clear in the following scenes and, by the end, we are cheering for the comic dénouement which unites lover with lover in perfect romantic harmony.

This cast of ten talented young actors embrace their characters and the play’s world with great charm and dedication. Sam Wilkin is a rake of a Rover, his Willmore capturing the lush with drunken ease. This brash and boastful buffoon is destined to win the hearts of the ladies he pursues. Natalie Macaluso as Helena, Italian sister destined for a convent but now enraptured with the Rover, is feisty and sexy in equal measure. Behn’s rather fanciful decision to revitalize the ‘girl-dressed-as-a-page’ motif works well in Macaluso’s hands.

Similar love-interests abound between the thwarted Florinda, played by Rebecca Shanks, and the mock-honourable Belville of Seth Sinclair. Florinda is flirtatious and innocent, her belief in her lover’s honour fortunately well-deserved. Shanks plays this innocence with great charm, a factor which highlights the danger when she is victim of a near-rape at the hands of Belville’s fellow cavaliers. Innocent charm is no match for male priapic desire. A moment of high tension in an otherwise light-hearted play.

Richard Earl is a fiery Italian brother to the girls, ready to defend his sisters’ virtues, and his own power as surrogate patriarch over this particular family unit, with swordplay if necessary. His chosen partner for Florinda, the Spanish Antonio of Stephen Darcy, is a slick and conniving courtier who must have raised the xenophobic heckles of the play’s original 1677 audience.

Third sister, Valeria, played by Catherine Skinner, is the final partner for the cavalier Frederick (Cary Crankson). Skinner doubles as excitable sister and knowing courtesan’s maid who, with broad Brummy accent, woos clients into her own web of sexual deceit. The courtesan Angellica, played by Adura Onashile, adds an exotic ‘otherness’ to this sexually-charged atmosphere. Behn’s own experiences with the slave trade is subtly translated into Onashile’s performance, enacting a courtesan who is no less a commodity to be bartered and exchanged on the open market of men’s desires. Poignant and dignified in its portrayal.

Finally, the hapless Blunt, an Essex gentleman who has followed the Royalist line but without any apparent innate style-sense. Jonathan Warde excels as the easily-gulled Blunt. Sex holds the key to his undoing. Losing clothes and money and sword, Blunt is left to wander the streets of Venice in his shift, opening himself to the ridicule of his fellows until he is kitted out in the worst of effete European attire. A fitting end for a man whose lust so violently threatens the innocent Florinda.

This is an excellent production of The Rover. Apart from the initial difficulties of following an intricate plot and unknown characters, it is also a production which rises to the challenge of staging a Restoration play superbly. With wonderful parts for women as well as men, it is a wonder it is not staged more often. It seems strange to think that, only thirty-five years after the great playhouses of London were closed in 1642 and the tradition of all-male casts ostensibly disappeared from the stage, here was a play in which real women could play real women, with all the sexual and emotional variety that that circumstance allows. The Rover is a fitting celebration of this freedom of artistic expression. It is also great, great fun.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

Are you sure?