Further thoughts on ‘The Rover’ at the RSC.

1: This is less a formal review than an informal expansion of my thoughts upon seeing this production. Expect possible silliness.

2: This is also relatively long, since there is a lot I’ve needed to say ever since seeing the play.

How many words beginning with R can I use to describe The Rover, written by Aphra Behn, directed in this case by Loveday Ingram and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, currently playing at the Swan Theatre?

Hmmm.

Raunchy. Riotous. Riveting. Roistering. Rabble-rousing. Roguish. Rapacious. Resounding. Raucous. Rakish. Romp. Riot. Ravenous. Reckless.

(All of which could also describe the title character, Willmore. Who first appeared during this showing in particular not by fighting off an enemy and swinging down onto the stage via rope. Not at first, anyway. Priorities! Before the fighting and the swinging he needed to slyly help himself to an audience member’s snacks, with a winning grin. Happy serendipity, that she should have left them on the balcony beside her, at the ideal time for Joseph Millson to pilfer them!)

While I’d heard of Aphra Behn before I am most ashamed that until roughly a month ago, I knew virtually nothing about The Rover or its author. The first female English playwright, and one of the first well known English women writers in general, Behn turned to professional scribing for a living in order to settle various debts; despite her work as a spy for Charles II during the Second Anglo Dutch War, he apparently refused to pay her when she returned to England. (I wonder what she must have thought when Charles then proceeded to enjoy this particular play so much, he ordered a private showing of it.)

While celebrated in her day, she unfortunately lost favour with readers and viewers during the eighteenth and nineteenth century – only to make a triumphant comeback in the twentieth. And most fitting that, as one of the first plays to be performed at the Swan Theatre when it opened in 1986, The Rover should come back home to roost for the theatre’s thirtieth anniversary.

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The plot, before it gets complicated, is as follows:

  • Charles II is in exile, and those rotten Puritans rule England. Boo! Likewise exiled English Colonel Belville (resolute, regulated, redoubtable and played by Patrick Robinson) has arrived in town during Carnival and is pining after his beloved Florinda. Her brother Don Pedro refuses to let them marry, despite the fact that Belville saved both of them during the sack of Pampelona by the English in the past. How ungrateful! Along for the ride are Frederick, an English gentleman (random, restless, reliable; Patrick Knowles) and Blunt, a likewise though somewhat less wise English gentleman and the group’s piggybank (raring, ridiculous, ridiculed, eventually reduced; Leander Deeny) and of course Willmore; Captain Willmore, newly arrived via rope swinging. All, bar Belville, are on the hunt for ladies, of which there are a wide and varied selection during the constant festival. Blunt is quickly roped in by Lucetta (ruse, robber, runner; Kellie Shirley). He believes she’s a proper lady with a heart of gold. She plans to take him for all he’s worth. His companions are more amused at his prospective fate than concerned, right up until they realise he’s got all their money and have to dash off in pursuit.
  • Now to the female characters. Florinda (restrained, romantic, resolved; Frances McNamee) is trapped between two suitors whom she hates but whom her father and brother respectively approve of: the ancient, much discussed but never seen Don Vincentio, and Pedro’s mate Don Antonio. Her younger sister Hellena (restless, radiant, rebellious, resilient, revolutionary rapscallion; a glorious performance by Faye Castelow) is being pushed by her family to take vows as a nun and renounce the world. Particularly the flesh. None too pleased with this future – especially renunciation of the flesh – or the prospect of her sister being forced into a different type of prison, Hellena convinces Florinda that they should sneak out of the house and attend Carnival, during which the elder sister can find her beloved and the younger can find ‘a man!’. Any man will do. She’s not picky. She’s backed up by their other sister Valeria (reserved, rambunctious, resourceful; Emma Noakes) and so they disguise themselves as vibrantly attired gypsies and sneak out for what proves to be one hell of a night on the town.
  • And the intrigue is dialled up further when word gets about that famous courtesan Angellica Bianca (renowned, regal, resplendent, rash, un-requited that counts, right?; Alexandra Gibreath) has lately arrived on the scene, and is looking for a new keeper now her old one has shuffled loose this mortal coil. Whoever takes up with her will need a large bank account, as her going rate is a hefty 1000 crowns a month; her attendants fatefully hang up a portrait of her outside her quarters to attract customers. Don Pedro (rich, repellent, reconsidering; Gyuri Sarossy) and Don Antonio (likewise rich, rivalry, retreating; Jamie Wilkes) are drawn like moths and can both easily afford her, but neither’s willing to yield up such an opportunity to their unknown opponent, coming to blows in what Nick Lee, the production’s guitarist, describes as a flamencoff. Ironically it’s penniless Willmore – breaking up their conflict and stealing Angellica’s portrait in lieu of ever being able to afford the genuine article – who catches her interest, while his sharp wits and brash condemnation of her trade in turn (somehow???) capture her heart. Her servant Moretta (rowdy, rueful, resigned; Allison McKenzie) is horrified. A courtesan of Angellica’s calibre, giving herself for free?! Even worse, for love?!?! And if Angellica’s looking for constancy or just reciprocation of her love, then she’s settled on the wrong man entirely, since Willmore’s attention is snared and repeatedly returning to the disguised Hellena.

(Are you still with me so far? Good. That was the simple part of the plot. It gets worse/better from here.)

In conveying the sheer heady, hothouse atmosphere the characters are plunged into, Loveday Ingram chose to draw on more contemporary types of Latin American celebrations. Thus watching this production of The Rover means getting swept up into a practically non-stop party from the moment you step into the theatre and take your seat, with factors as common today as they were 300 years ago in one shape or another. So basically raves, bumping and grinding, flirting and having it off in dark corners, cheap unhealthy food purchased off vendors, brawling, sweet and deadly drinks, girl on girl being utilised to titillate straight men, cutting and running, getting pissed and puking, and charging upstairs to passionately remedy raging…attractions.

(I was wondering if Blunt might actually have been able to buy pretzels alongside traditional masks in the real seventeenth century. Since they were first made in the medieval period it’s possible, but it’s very unlikely that the candyfloss the wayward sisters snack on would have been as big a thing back then.)

Just as common in both time periods, though supposedly less tolerated by today’s audiences, is the darker side of excess and lack of restraint: exploitation, robbery, outright sexual assaults attempted by the play’s antagonists and protagonists alike. Even when the frenzy of the party atmosphere has yet to begin or is dying down, there’s still the set-in-stone sexual double standards which the female characters seek to defy throughout the piece. The Rover’s a joyful shout of a play. It’s also a heartfelt protest against greedy hands trying to snatch a woman’s body, mind or fortune; accusing the societies that condemn women to the mercy of less than merciful men.

All the more fun (for everyone except the men on stage) when the women turn the tables. At nearly every point in this play where it seems the men will triumph, Behn and Ingram bring the women out on top – whether by deception, mastery in games of wits, sheer defiance, exposing of uncomfortable truths or taking the high road and bestowing forgiveness on those who may or may not deserve it. During the climax, a certain gentleman is made to face past misdemeanours as nearly every woman in the cast looms over his trial, with him squirming under the weight of their gaze.

Hellena sets the tone of protest early on when crossing swords with Pedro, dismissing his claims of Florinda’s certain contentment with being shut up by her husband in a country estate. The little sister deliberately exasperates the elder brother as much as possible by dropping to the floor and spreading her legs beneath her skirts, groping around to show her petticoats, making way for an invisible husband:

“That Honour being past, the Giant stretches itself, yawns and sighs a Belch or two as loud as a Musket, throws himself into Bed, and expects you in his foul Sheets, and e’er you can get your self undrest, calls you with a Snore or two — And are not these fine Blessings to a young Lady?” Pedro asks her if she’s done yet; not on your life! “And this man you must kiss, nay, you must kiss nay but him too — and nuzle thro his Beard to find his Lips — and this you must submit to for threescore Years, and all for a Jointure.

Despite this rant, Hellena’s determined to get her fill of the pleasure that the men in her family try to deny her. Castelow gives us a Hellena that’s often on the move, running hands through her hair or planting them on her hips; stepping up to, around and away from her admirer and leaving him to chase after her; rarely standing still save when someone holds her arm or her attention, only really stopping to humour them briefly or satisfy herself. There’s far too much energy and desire in her to ever sit calmly and wait to see what happens. When her body’s at rest her mind’s still working to get the best out her situation, slipping through any trap laid for her. When Willmore pleads to go home with her and sort out that raging…attraction of his – “Oh, I’m impatient. Thy Lodging, Sweetheart, thy Lodging, or I’m a dead man!” – Hellena’s humorous wit mixes with real indignation and accusation:

“Why must we be either guilty of Fornication or Murder, if we converse with you Men? — And is there no difference between leave to love me, and leave to lie with me?

But the electricity that sparks between the two from the first leaves Hellena wanting not just a single night of release before she trudges to the cloister. She wants security, she wants freedom, and after only a few minutes’ worth of talking she wants Willmore. She wants to watch him squirm, she wants to see how he’ll get out of his latest predicament, she wants to pay him back for inconstancy and still secure him for herself. (She’s clearly having so much fun in the scene where, disguised as a boy, she deliberately sews discord between Willmore and Angellica, leaving him scrabbling for excuses.) She wants it all, reaching out her arms as if she’ll capture the whole world. Small wonder that Willmore’s panting after her and sinks on bended knee to kiss her hand, even after experiencing the heaven that is Angellica.

In contrast to Hellena’s energy and dashing about the stage in excitement, Angellica first appears high up on a balcony and totally separate from the festivities, setting herself apart from the common lot and moving with grace, dignity and satisfaction. Despite the threat of the convent, the virgin at least has the security of her youth and social standing; the courtesan walks on a tightrope, constantly needing to present herself to the world as proud, cold, glorious and untouchable. Gilbreath plays Angellica as a world-weary person who’s seen just about everything under the sun, and wasn’t that impressed with most of it. Even the prospect of a rich new keeper, already proven to be infatuated with her in the past, can’t perk her up much. Still, she takes it in stride and as her due, watching over the dons’ duel like a presiding goddess or Justice holding the scales. “Inconstancy’s the Sin of all Mankind, therefore I’m resolv’d that nothing but Gold shall charm my Heart.”

Gilbreath takes Angellica from detached interest in Willmore’s antics outside her lodgings – finally, a man who isn’t boring! – to anger that he refuses to play by the rules and give her the reverence she’s earned. She uses cold humour to cover rage as she picks up the single coin he dropped to the floor in mockery of his own poverty and her price, handing it back to him. She too has comebacks for his arrogance, less witty and more born from pain and harsh experience:

“Pray, tell me, Sir, are not you guilty of the same mercenary Crime? When a Lady is proposed to you for a Wife, you never ask, how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune — which if but small, you cry — She will not do my business — and basely leave her, tho she languish for you. — Say, is not this as poor?”

Gilbreath also does wonders in showing how Willmore’s mix of insolence and bravado wake something Angellica buried long ago. Falling for Willmore in the space of a relatively brief conversation, considering the context, really shouldn’t work – but Behn still wrote it, and Gilbreath kills it. A believable infatuation on her part just makes it all the more painful and dangerous when she realises how deep his interest in his masked ‘gipsy’ runs. She actually comes down from on high to look for him and goes among the rabble, sullying her reputation, to find him. There was one glimpse of her among drunk revellers, awkward, out of place and desperately looking for Willmore, that just speaks so much about her sadness and frustration at how he’s abandoned her so easily. He’d better watch out, though; she’s resolved that she might be his dupe, but she’s not going to be his victim.

As for Willmore-

(wait, wait, I’ve got some more words! Rude, ravenous, rapier-wit, rushing, ribald, risk-taker, rigorous, ranting, roaming, rollicking, rampant, randy.)

-he’s a force of nature. Not necessarily a good thing for the rest of the cast – or even occasionally a modern day audience – but it’s mad fun to watch.  Willmore has no internal filters or censors, little restraint and precious few manners. Despite the buckets of charm which counteract said lack of manners, he manages to enrage nearly every major character he encounters in one form or another; at one point even Belville is driven to homicide and tries to gut him. The guilty party barely has time to recognise just how doomed he is and suggest “Behave yourself!” before he’s fleeing, still trying to apologise for ruining his friend’s chances with Florinda yet again.

In a different play, maybe even just with a different actor, we probably wouldn’t like Willmore half as much. But Joseph Millson makes him so enthusiastic, unafraid, unapologetic, seductive and hilarious that we never really have to question what it is his friends/lovers/one night stands etc actually see in this man. It was a rare moment (which came when he accosts Florinda early in the second act) when I paused to think “Why am I rooting for this guy?” And then the above encounter with Belville happened and I was falling in love all over again.

To Millson are due some of the biggest laughs of the show, thanks to him shouting half his lines like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart in the first act, and having meltdowns akin to Basil Fawlty in the second when everything starts going to hell. (The beard also brings to mind Brian Blessed. And, hell, let’s throw in Daenerys Targaryen: ‘Where’s my gypsy?!?’) He adlibs, he flirts with audience members, he pretends to vomit on them during his drunken stint. Even his fellow actors aren’t safe. If you’ve seen reviews from press night about a certain someone corpsing, it was still happening during the afternoon performance of September 17th (and, as of this writing, it’s STILL happening nearly a week later; good grief!). I remember a long pause, with Millson standing far upstage looking around the theatre in complete innocence and his fellow cast members trying so hard to keep straight faces during what was meant to be a tense confrontation.

He also brings inhuman amounts of energy and physical effort to the role: rushing in, rushing out, accosting people and getting into numerous brawls and fights. At one point when he collapses flat and lies spread-eagled on the floor after yet another (brilliantly choreographed) swordfight, I’m sure a lot of us were thinking ‘It’s okay, Joseph. You’ve earned this. Take a few more moments. Get your puff back. It’s fine, we’ll wait.’

And, leaving behind the bombast, Millson and Ingram give us gentler touches to undercut the filthiness of the rake. Such as when Willmore gleefully tugs Hellena off the stage and into the shadow of a balcony at least twice – not to try anything physical but simply engaging her in quiet conversation, drawing her in while also growing ever more enchanted. Or how he literally sweeps Angellica off her feet as they head to bed. Or how he handles the bright red scarf Hellena gives him, tucking it into his belt as his lady’s favour and pulling it out periodically to mop away the sweat (very necessary in this show) and as a means of recalling her. Or the way he genuinely makes the best – if still lacking – apology he can to those he’s wronged, actually humbled and brought a little low. Just a smidge.

Is Millson’s rover regretful of at least some of what he’s done throughout the play, and in the past? Perhaps. Repentant? Possibly. Redeemed? Maybe. Reformed?

We’ll get back to you on that.

The beauty of The Rover is that everyone gets their time to shine and dominate the stage. One of the best arcs is Florinda’s, starting off powerless against pressure to marry and reluctant to rock the boat, but gradually daring to take more steps in freeing herself and being with the man she loves. Florinda goes through a lot during this plot, and McNamee does fantastically as a well-brought up lady who’s had a very long night, but still keeps her eyes focused on the prize and never breaks. The prize is worth the struggle. Robinson is perfect as Belville, starting off as staid and sober, heartbroken and essentially a parent reluctantly shepherding a bunch of man-children; gradually unwinding and giving in to the allure and opportunities of carnival in order to win his beloved. Plus he does such marvellous shocked facial expressions, when realization dawns and the shit is about to hit the fan.

Valeria and Frederick might otherwise have suffered from the ‘pair the spares’ trope, but Noakes ensures that Valeria is buzzing with curiosity, enthusiasm to milk everything she can from their ‘girls night out’, and more than enough practicality to solve problems if and when they arise. We get an understanding of her character right from the beginning, when she acts as a perfectly quiet and obedient sibling in front of Pedro, then scampers offstage as soon as he’s gone and returns with a whoop atop a chest of dressing up clothes, so eager to put the scheme into motion that she’s literally falling over herself to choose her costume. Knowles I felt has less to do compared to the (mis)adventures of his mates, but I loved the moments in which this pair formed a quiet connection across a crowded stage, sometimes even circling each other in their own kind of dance or hunt.

And left all on his lonesome as a fourth wheel is Blunt, the clueless tourist who’s duped into paying too much for everything as well as over tipping, and generating a lot of the rest of the show’s humour. Deeny was brilliant at playing Blunt as awkward and embarrassing to begin with, earnest as he tries to help his companions out but only gets in the way, fun to laugh at as he’s strung along, then pathetic when he’s exploited, roped in and strung up. And just when you’re reaching out your hand to apologise for laughing, he bites out, sinks his teeth in, vows he’ll be avenged, and actually gets started on trying to accomplish it. All credit to Deeny for portraying a seemingly perfectly nice but gullible man, and fully selling us on the dark and vindictive turn he takes, while still keeping him pathetic enough to pity.

Don Pedro and Don Antonio are helped to rise above being merely the stereotypical villains of the show. Sarossy starts Pedro off as grand, arrogant and so entirely sure of himself that he dons his motley in front of his sisters, almost taunting them with what they can’t have; but very soon he loses his dignity when Hellena initiates the aforementioned drop-and-spread, and he never really gets it back. He succumbs to the mayhem of the festivities, loses all control and most of his composure and joins in with the rushing in, rushing out, and once rushing in again wearing nothing but a pair of purple velvet, gold embroidered briefs. (Quite an eyeful, even up in Gallery One.) I wish we’d gotten to see more of Wilkes as Don Antonio – I nearly cried with giggles at his quest for underpants in The Comedy of Errors at the Globe Theatre – but he manages both to get just as many chuckles as Sarossy and also capitalizes on Antonio’s measure of dignity, recognising where he’s lacking and acknowledging when a better man is in front of him.

McKenzie as Moretta likewise had relatively limited time on stage. Still utterly worth it. Even more world-weary and nihilistic than her mistress, she’s maid and major domo all in one – and, if I read it aright, even deeper than that. She places no value on love, but she might also still feel it for Angellica, fretting about more than just the importance of proper payment and trying in vain to make her see Willmore’s bad news. (Bad headlines.) I adored how she was side-eyeing Willmore like hell and clearly longing to use her cane on him, like a surlier version of Maria from Twelfth Night; I was disappointed it didn’t turn out to be a sword stick, what with the way she was gripping it! And every insult and declaration rolled out in McKenzie‘s Glaswegian accent, with plenty of additional ‘r’s.

Even the minor characters stick in the mind. Shirley does a fabulously seductive and conniving Lucetta; Chris Jack is great as her pimp Sancho (reprehensible, rotten) who might not have quite the upper hand in his relationship that he imagined; the two of them get to show their twisted but somehow affectionate partnership. Callis the governess (ribald, raucos; Sally Bankes) and Stephano, Pedro’s page (retainer, rebel; Joe Allen) who you might expect to remain in the background and simply take orders, instead defy expectations and support the sisters against the tyranny of their brother, helping to deceive and thwart him. Just one more example of the topsy-turviness that carnival brings, both in Behn’s original script and in the way Ingram brings it to us. The chorus of night ladies, revellers and musicians complete the cast, churning up mayhem, mischief and madness as is needed.

This crazy mismatched atmosphere also comes out in the costumes. Willmore wears artfully ripped jeans and a be-frogged doublet that wouldn’t look entirely out of place on a Napoleonic officer – who, judging by the general state of said garment, would be seen dead in it. He also undergoes a wardrobe change in Act 2, shedding his once-upon-a-time white shirt and those aforementioned jeans for a black shirt and leather pants. (That must have been boiling; no wonder the shirt was half-undone! Besides certain other reasons…) Blunt’s done up like a 17th century version of Bertie Wooster, all tweed and corduroy. Florinda, Valeria and Hellena start their story in traditional, heavy gowns – white, red-black and grey respectively – which are luxurious and expensive but also conservative, restrictive and smothering. When they start to get ready for their expedition they cast off their designated roles and prisons, stripping down to reveal modern camisoles and bras before donning their colourful disguises. Don Pedro swans about in white jeans, knee-high boots and a black velvet coat, while Don Antonio frankly looks like Tybalt from Baz Luhrman’s version of Romeo + Juliet, all red heeled shoes and fancy waistcoats. Fittingly for the darker, seductive world of the sex trade, Angellica reigns supreme in gorgeous lacey black lingerie, and occasionally dons a mask that brings back awful memories of Fifty Shades of Grey. (Brrr.) Moretta reminds me of nothing so much as the Emcee from Cabaret, rocking a bowler hat and rapping her walking stick (still not sword-stick, sob sob) to drum up trade, and done up in stays with L’Amour et Psyché, enfants full across the front. The irony.

It’s the little things that I treasure.

The costumes were the easiest to remember of all the details that I noted, among every single thing happening upon the stage. This is a play you need to watch more than once to appreciate all the little bits and pieces they’ve worked in: like the way characters would run off the stage but wait in the shadows among the audience, watching avidly to see what would happen next. The man in a goat’s mask who starts the carnival proper by breaking a cross, showing all rules are off, and who seemed to be keeping a close eye on proceedings throughout. Callis hurrying onstage after her charges, done up in full traditional Spanish matron’s garb with a mantilla, clutching an orange, extremely alcoholic drink with plenty of straws.  The gradual loss of light in Lucetta’s chambers, as Blunt is set up for a pratfall and pitfall all in one. One particularly barmy fight sequence where a cheesy but much loved English anthem inspires our protagonists to triumph. Blunt being chased off by a reveller towering over him on stilts. Willmore being deceived, and then very dramatically un-deceived, by Hellena’s boy disguise and stuck on moustache.20160917_131919

Having babbled on for way too long, one last thing before I take my leave: the music. From the moment the band came onto stage and began to play as we were still getting to our seats, and the singing began, I knew this was going to be good. Just as the lady singing to that first tune went out among the audience members to interact with them, the music pulled us into the play, bringing us close and helping us to get quite comfortable and familiar. Please, Grant Olding, tell me the company will release a soundtrack for this play!20160917_131915

 

 

 

To sum up: I am so glad I got to see this production. I’m so glad I’ll be able to go see it again, and soon, and find more things to note and bring back. People are booking to see it more than once for myriad reasons; I recommend trying to get a ticket while they’re still available.

Have I got any last words?

How about this:

Loveday Ingram’s version of The Rover revitalizes, renews, and returns.

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