DramaLondonReview

The Masks of Aphra Behn – White Bear Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Claire Louise Amias

Director: Pradeep Jey

Spending an hour in the company of Aphra Behn is more than enough to appreciate the fascination this pioneering 17th century woman holds for many. This tour of her life’s highlights hints at the depths available to plumb in the full story of the English language’s first female professional writer, but simultaneously leads to frustration at details left unexplored or questions left unanswered.

Writer, and the show’s only performer, Claire Louise Amias takes us, with great wit and warmth, through Behn’s various missions as a spy, her role in the court of Charles II, her creative and theatrical output and her personal struggles. At each part, we see just enough to know there’s more there for exploration.

Focusing heavily on the time she spent in Antwerp during 1666 seeking intelligence on enemy planning during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and trying to recruit a former friend to become a double (or perhaps triple) agent, the play squeezes the other elements of this rich life to make room for almost a blow-by-blow account of the period. We’re left with scant detail on her subsequent mission to Venice and the influential courtesan friend she made there, and her later life writing plays and other works in London.

The “masks” of the title refers to the various roles she has to play – wife, friend, spy, writer etc. It’s a theme that promises much, but seems lost through the piece, popping up infrequently and delivering real impact when it does. Amias brings to light some smart points about the sexism and precarious position of women at the time, noting the unfairness that exists between the different types of character women are classified into, and Behn’s own efforts to shake free of this restrictive taxonomy. It is with this element, and the historical sections relating to the colonies, the King’s court and restoration theatre where the production most comes to life.

Presented simply in the White Bear’s black box, with a chair and a handful of letters as the only props, it allows Amias full scope to play the raconteur. It’s a role she takes on ably, and with great assistance from the period costume designed by Anna Sørensen Sargent.

The play was first produced back in 2016, and has been brought back as part of an effort to gain further recognition for this remarkable woman. There’s even a campaign underway to have a bronze statue of her created for a location in Canterbury in Behn’s native Kent.

As a play, it feels unevenly focused on the detail of her Antwerp mission to the detriment of the other intriguing parts of her life. As a piece of work designed to arouse interest in Aphra Behn, convincing us of the need to know more about her and guiding us to appreciate her groundbreaking role as the English language’s first professional writer, it does a truly admirable job.

Runs until 13 January then tours

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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