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The Rover

Photo by Anna Kucera

Belvoir presents, THE ROVER, by Aphra Behn, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. July 5 – 6 August.

THE ROVER, is a play by Aphra Behn, written in 1677. It is part of the playwriting literature emanating from the Restoration of Charles II to the throne and power, after the Puritanical leadership of Oliver Cromwell as the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. The play, in verse, is a swash-buckling exuberance of Carnival time in the city of Naples, invaded by some English sea-dog exiles, roving the Mediterranean, some 20 years prior to the Restoration. It is based on Thomas Killigrew’s THOMASO (1664) and its great strength lies not alone in the fact that Aphra Behn was the first woman to be a professional writer (other plays, novels – e.g. OROONOKO: or, The Royal Slave [1688] – and commissioned articles), but in the honest bawdy in the depiction of the exploitative nature of men in their sexual relationships. It is a witty verbal conflict in which the women of Naples give as good as they get – think of a more far ranging verbal playground of the Benedick and Beatrice kind in a MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING tone. It was brought to an acute modern attention in 1986 when it was successfully revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is the second production of the play in Belvoir’s (Nimrod’s) history.

The Director Eamon Flack writes a copious note which is accompanied by a brief history of the life of Aphra Behn, in the Belvoir program, both, full of handsome appraisal and admiration for the playwright and the play.

So, this production of the play begins with an actor, Nikki Shiels, addressing the audience directly with a newly minted foreword to the play proper, giving the impression that she is speaking as the author. Besides other stuff, she berates the critics who might diminish their appreciation of the work because it is written by a woman, and it finishes with a spoken sentiment that more than less urges us that if we don’t like what she has said: ‘To Fuck Off’ out of the theatre. The play begins with that vulgar invitation. None of us left – we’d all paid good money to be there (in my case $70.00) and no offer of money return was given, so … sit and see. Many, most, took the “Fuck Off ‘ cue as an offer to laugh and many did – they’d paid money to see Aphra Behn’s THE ROVER, and I guess, the trusting audience thought, this was part of it.

Then, after almost three hours, the play finishes with The Rover, Willmore (Toby Schmitz), agreeing to enter the bondage of marriage to ex-convent novitiate (and virgin) Hellena (Taylor Ferguson), leaving the stage empty for a contrived coda by the Director, for the two actors playing most of the servant roles in the play, Callis (Kiruna Stamell) and Moretta/Lucetta (Megan Wilding), to be able, in extended dumb show, to get themselves comfortable, dangling their feet in the pool, counting their ill gotten ‘loot’, lighting a cigarette for each, puffing it with relaxing comfort, and looking about themselves in the relative ‘peace’ of the time, to deliver an exclaimed meta-theatre comment in the broadest Aussie ‘noise’ on the recent hectic traffic of the English sailors in Naples of c.1657: “Fucking Tourists”. Lights out. Curtain calls.

The usage of the word FUCK and other broad Aussie lowlife comedy epithets, copiously interpolated into Alphra Behn’s text throughout, has been the cue for the most laughter in the performance, not the duets of witty banter between the characters written by the original writer. What was disheartening, for me, was to have read the Belvoir program notes and pre-publicity claim to present the work of a woman of period with admiration and excitement and then to have to witness that company subvert that work with gross undergraduate ‘campery’ posing as wit: ‘fuck that’, ‘fuck this’; introducing those hackneyed joke choices of men kissing men and discovering the pleasure of it; of men in dresses and loving it: “Oooh, I love your dress”, coos one man to another; of actors lisping and limpwristing themselves as comic choices; of women in male attire and slapping their thighs in wide-legged or pigeon-toed, or both, comment; of women foulmouthing or using vocal extrapolations and range games for comic effect; of stopping the plot of the play by referencing contemporary social and sexual politics: Why is the only black actor, doing filthy clean-up duty? Hey, why two women cleaning up the mess? Where are the boys? Get out here!, ad nauseum; and to have Mr Flack indulge his (undoubted) romance with the chaos of the Marx Brothers chase sequences (see my blog on his production of Chekhov’s IVANOV), and in this case having one of the actors dressed as a ‘penguin’ and referenced by almost every other actor, in a wearisome gallop of many, many minutes (hours?); of, I supposed, a subversive political take on strip tease, by having a male who need not be seen naked embrace the ‘art’ form of it! There was more. This is not just a modernist deconstruction of a play, it was the usual Belvoir destruction.

It seemed to me that there was probably an enormous amount of time in rehearsal invested in developing clowning routines (e.g.Willmore and Blunt, the ‘chase’ routine) – that took up a lot of the playing time – rather than in elucidating, untangling for modern ears the witty text of Aphra Behn – a very demanding modern task – what too demanding, for contemporary actors and contemporary audiences? This was a disappointing and progressively tedious night in the theatre played to the lowest common denominator of comedy routines – the usual penchant for Aussie caricature and sketch comic routine (what, no pies in the face!) undermining the verbal and plotting wit of Aphra Behn. The Belvoir production felt like a night at Minsky’s Burlesque (see, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S – film, 1968) rather than a celebration of the work of the Restoration writer Aphra Behn.

There is so much theatrical intelligence and skill on the stage in this cast that all goes to uncritical permissions encouraged by the Director: Gareth Davies, as Ned Blunt (led to doing his usual sad clown act – not again!); Taylor Ferguson, as Hellena (led to playing vocal noise games with her text and sitting pigeon-toed or slapping thighs as comic character indication); Leon Ford, as Belvile (mostly swamped [though valiant in effort] with the disorder about him); Nathan Lovejoy, as Don Antonio (lisping Spanish dialect comedy and untidy wigggery), and Frederick (university undergraduate ad-libbing mistaken for specious wit); Elizabeth Nabben, as Florinda (the actor that, in my book, survives the ghastliness best, despite her broken wrist and cheap verbal references to it); Toby Schmitz, as Willmore (led to delivering what he has done successfully over and over again, over and over again e.g. PRIVATE LIVES, THE PRESENT – just to quote two examples – and it works, so stick with it, but, I know he can do other things?! Let’s harness those other ‘things’, soon); Nikki Shiels, as Angelica Bianca (nearly getting on top of the ‘mess’ about her to honour Aphra Behn – tries bravely); Kiruna Stamell, as Callis (has a go at not much given, other than the comic turn as a penquin); Andre De Vanny, as Don Pedro (who tries to give faithful work, despite his employment of an inconsistent stammer, to Aphra Behn, but succumbs, ultimately, to wearing a beautiful green dress, clearly Designed and fitted for him, to be funny); Megan Wilding, as Moretta and Lucetta (who obviously has a gift for language but is encouraged to Aussie burlesque schtick to endear us to her work).

How did this happen? No dialogue with the Director? Or just plain submission by the actors? Are theatrical intelligence and theatrical integrity and respect for the writer, different things? Really? In the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Caryl Churchill’s CLOUD NINE, there is a similar co-hort of actors with theatrical intelligence and skill who (despite a few blemishes of judgement) with their Director have the integrity of the writer at the forefront of their choices for their audiences. The play and its skill and intentions are beautifully served. A good night in the theatre.

This production is set in a never-never time of period/contemporary image and costumes (Mel Page, both) – there is a feature of an enormous portrait, Fellinesque-like (La Dolce Vita – 1960) of Naples’ courtesan, Angelica Bianca, dominating the action of the work – with a shallow tiled pool sitting just off-centre stage, and the Director uses a heightened awareness and usage of the audience and the auditorium as an extension to the physical and verbal offers of the play – sometimes uncomfortably interactive for some members of the audience! The Lighting by Matt Scott delivers on the Directorial modernism and Steve Toulmin serves with his Sound Composition and Design the production’s skewed needs well.

If, Mr Flack is so enamoured of the Max Sennett, Marx Brothers, Three Stooges physical and verbal comedy, why not, as he is also Artistic Director at Belvoir, schedule/adapt a Marx Brothers play – THE COCOANUTS (1925-26) ANIMAL CRACKERS (1928-29). Or, one of Mae West’s groundbreaking plays – SEX (1926), THE DRAG (1927), DIAMOND LIL (1928)? Let’s see a totally neglected farceur such as Avery Hopwood – THE BAT (1920), FAIR AND WARMER (1915), LADIES NIGHT (1920) on stage – and leave IVANOV and THE ROVER unmolested and in tact.

THE ROVER, if you want to. I recommend CLOUD NINE , as the go see.