From Leo Bosi, Year 11 student
Aphra Behn – the first female playwright to make a living from her art and author of over 25 works over four decades – heard of her? Neither had I. Although it may indeed have been this underdog status that moved her to write The Rover, a saucy swashbuckling jab at the lopsided gender politics of the 17th century. From the very beginning, the author, appearing on stage for a brief time challenges the audience to deny that it is at least as funny as those written by her male counterparts. Playing at the Belvoir Street Theatre until 6 August, there is as much fun to be had here as there is from any writer of the same period (if not more). The rendition of the play from director Eamon Flack provides plenty of physical comedy and snappy delivery of the wit of this 17th century comedy whose messages retain their relevance to this day.
We are introduced to two love hungry souls, who are preparing for the rambunctiously saucy festival of Carnivalé: Helena (Taylor Ferguson) and her sister Florinda (Elizabeth Nabben). The two set out into the festivities disguised as gypsies, and through chance, they meet Willmore (Toby Schmitz), Blunt (Gareth Davies), Belville (Leon Ford) and Fredrick (Nathan Lovejoy), and become hopelessly infatuated. Through a series of comic hijinks, Willmore also finds himself drawn to one Angelica Bianca (Nikki Shiels). In the time that follows, these two parties are either trying to find one another without knowing who each other are, or trying to maintain two relationships without letting one side know about the other.
At first glance it would appear that Behn’s fiery resilience to imbalanced gender stereotypes splutters out after her initial appearance; the audience is thrust into and interesting yet familiar love story in which the male participants either seek pleasure (Willmore) or to protect the “helpless” women (Belville). And the female members either desire to ensnare and manipulate men, or seek marriage. But this façade does not last long, as Behn enlightens some other sides to the issue. Willmore, whose at times unacceptable acts of courtship are at first charming and funny, go a little too far with Florinda, almost assaulting her. Also, Helena’s quest to gain Willmore’s love is done in a decidedly unorthodox way; first she disguises herself as a gypsy, then she disguises herself as a boy to hide from her brother, who wants her to marry another man. This subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) subplot makes the actions of the characters all the more engaging; as one can be surprised by the way the play undermines expectations. Mistaken identity forms quite a few of the gags, but it also serves another purpose. It reminds audiences that they are watching a play, and this helps to communicate the play’s other messages.
Taylor Ferguson’s Helena embodies much of what Behn’s play is about: she’s a “noble” woman seeking love, in line with the genre and gender conventions of the sixteen hundreds, but she does so in a decidedly untraditional way. Ferguson plays up this sparky, almost tomboy nature to accent the playwright’s message. Almost every time she talks, Helena is also gesturing, jumping about in some way, and her tone suggests that she is sure of herself, or that she is at least willing to commit to her actions. This adds to her character’s likeable nature, as almost all of the time, the audience wants to see her quest for love succeed. Toby Schmitz’s Willmore complements this, with his character’s match of wits with Helena easily seen. The actors’ snappy portrayal of their characters adds to the overall humour. And coupled with the easy going but lively swashbuckler portrayed by Schmitz, the audience is determined to see Willmore and Helena together, even when Willmore switches his interests. The two characters feel like they were made for each other.
The costume is a mix between period and modern, complete with swords swinging from belts, which brings out the feel of swashbuckling Spaniards. The variety generally allows for a distinction between the occasional doubling of the actors. And the significance of the costumes is thrown into sharp relief when the cast returns to the stage out of costume at curtain call, and one must take a moment to recognize the people, who look very different from their colourful characters. The set consists of a single area that is, through the audience’s imagination and the focus of the characters, all the inside and outside locations. There are many parts to the set, some of which the audience is immediately aware of and anxious to see what they are used for, and some like Angelica’s window, are revealed to general surprise later on. These changes only occur in the first half, so the play slows down in terms of set change later on. This may be necessary due to the speed of events, and to keep the area safe for the comically intricate chase scenes that are the climax of the play.
The well-choreographed sword fights these are high points in the play, as well as the many gags coming from well executed staging and physical comedy. One such moment is done “Loony Tunes” style: a drunk Willmore appears to be fighting his opponent off in the wings, but after a suitably long period of time, Don Antonio (doubled by Nathan Lovejoy) appears calmly behind Willmore from the other side of the stage. And Willmore only notices after another hilarious pause. Plus, in keeping with the Belvoir style, the stage manager appears moments later with a bloody eye. Oops. There are a few of these meta-theater moments throughout the play, such as when characters stop to explain the funnier period vernacular, or when a character interrupts from the audience to complain about the play’s content. These moments are clear and quick, providing a brief moment that paradoxically draws the audience into the play further.
Credit must be given to a production when a show-stopping accident occurs offstage and the audience is none the wiser, even when the stage manager tells the audience that a member of the cast has broken their wrist. Disappointing not to see the end of this fine production. Wit is the word here: sharp, well-timed delivery. Wit in the writing, wit in the performance and wit in the design. And I’d be hard pressed to argue that it the play isn’t at least as funny as Behn’s opposition. In fact, I’d think that a few of them might have bought tickets to a production on the sly. Cheeky buggers.