Aphra Behn was an English dramatist and poet of the seventeenth century. While much about her life remains unknown, she was an unrepentant, dissenting voice and the first woman in England to identify herself as a professional writer who enjoyed substantial success during her lifetime. A versatile and prolific writer, one of Behn’s most notable works is The Rover, a comedic piece first published in 1677.
Set during the years of the Cromwellian Revolution in England, when Charlies II was forced into exile, a band of cavaliers travels to Naples, Italy during its carnival season. Among them is Colonel Belville (Leon Ford) and Captain Willmore (Toby Schmitz). Willmore falls in love with noble Spanish woman Hellena (Taylor Ferguson) who has resolved to experience real love before her brother, Don Pedro (Andre de Vanny), sends her to a convent. And while Hellena falls in love with Willmore, the situation is complicated by the fact that Angellica Bianca (Nikki Shiels), a famous Spanish courtesan, is also in love with the naval captain.
There’s also the predicament of Hellena’s older sister, Florinda (Elizabeth Nabben), who is to be married to Don Pedro’s good friend, Don Antonio (Nathan Lovejoy), against her wishes. Her true love is Colonel Belville and she concocts a plan that will enable the pair to marry.
And then there’s the tale of another Englishman, Ned Blunt (Gareth Davies), who believes Lucetta (Megan Wilding) is in love with him; however, it is eventually revealed that she’s a thief and she humiliates him, causing Blunt to adopt a vengeful attitude towards all women.
It reads very much like a Shakespearean comedy, and those familiar traits of Shakespeare’s more light-hearted works are all there: there are young people in love struggling to be together despite forces working against them, characters donning disguises that ultimately add another layer of complication to the circumstances, and the neat and tidy note eventually reached that ensures proceedings conclude with a satisfactory ending.
In Behn’s text, we also see the foregrounding of female characters who are strong, determined to take control of their own destinies and not reluctant to speak their minds. It’s the female characters in The Rover that hold the power and, as it turns out, the knowhow to bring about the outcomes each key character desires. It’s little wonder that, centuries after its first publication, Behn’s writing is celebrated as feminist.
Eamon Flack has bought The Rover into the 21st century in a production that remains faithful to the text but presents it in a package that ensures it has maximum impact when put before a contemporary audience. There is plenty of fourth wall breaking, which adds to the pace of the piece that, at three hours, has its work cut out for it. The success of this modern adaptation of Behn’s work also owes to the excellent work of dramaturg Charlotte Bradley, and Mel Page’s well-conceived set and costume designs also deserve commendation.
When it comes to the performances, it’s a cast of uniformly high calibre actors that Flack has assembled. Ferguson is bold, feisty and exudes confidence in her portrayal of the opinionated Hellena, keen to divert from the path that’s been set for her. Ford brings integrity to Belville, and is as even-tempered as the character requires. Lovejoy shows wonderful comedic skills in his performance as the almost ‘Zorro meets Fabio’-esque Don Antonio. Nabben’s Florinda is defined by a believable obstinacy while Kiruna Stamell, as her governess Callis, provides strong support as she finds herself manipulated by both Florinda and Hellena. Wilding has some of the funniest moments in the piece and makes the most of each and every one of them. De Vanny is excellent as the nobleman who purports to exercise control over his sisters, but is so totally oblivious to their efforts to abandon the plans he has made for their futures. And as the naïve Blunt, Davies convinces as the daft and hapless gentleman who finds himself duped by a clever thief.
But it’s Schmitz as Willmore – the rover himself – and Shiels as the dazzling Spanish courtesan who are the standouts here amongst a strong group. Schmitz’s character appears every bit as fickle and dubious as the text implies and it’s an enormously entertaining portrayal. Similarly, Shiels is a scene-stealer each and every time she appears. Her delivery of each line with the most beautiful articulation is a pleasure to the ear, and she too demonstrates top comedic chops in her performance.
The Rover, under Flack’s direction, is an immensely entertaining evening of theatre. This is a first-class cast and creative team paying homage to an important – and often overlooked – writer in the history of the art form.
THE ROVER SEASON DETAILS
Playing until 6 August
Upstairs Theatre – Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills)
Tickets from the box office on 02 9699 3444 or at belvoir.com.au