Writer: Aphra Behn
Director: Amy Hodge
Reviewer: Steve Barfield
It is a shame that The Rover (1677) is produced infrequently, as it is the most well-known Restoration comedy by Britain’s first professional woman of letter Aphra Behn (1640-1689,) and it now has a firm place in the canon. It was also a great favourite of King Charles II himself and was such a hit that Behn even wrote a sequel.
This version is an innovative, audacious and unusual one for several reasons. First, is a promenade, site-responsive production set in the royal apartments and courtyards of Hampton Court (it was created in connection with the Palace’s new temporary exhibition, ‘The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned’, which is about the ‘decadent’ 17th Century English court of Charles II). Second, this is a very considerable, radical reworking of the play by writer/director Amy Hodge.
Although the familiar bones of the story are certainly there, it has been broken down into sequences which occur in different locations, whereas the language has been partly updated to make it more modern and it has replaced bawdy sexual innuendo with direct sexual reference (sometimes the script sounded rather like Howard Barker). Certain characters and sub-plots have been cut, (for instance Blunt and the prostitute Lucetta); while interactive installation style work from production company Artluxe, additional characters who interact with the audience, a modern ambient soundtrack and stylised lighting have all been used to help interpret the story. Such clever touches in interactive mode include the replica Charles II silver groats you are given when you get your ticket, and which you will need pay bribes to enter ‘the sale of beauty’ and which various characters will invite you to spend on either them or their wares (sometimes both). In this sense the production is a deconstruction of Behn’s The Rover, rather like the work of dreamthinkspeak with Chekhov or Shakespeare, though it lacks the latter company’s emphasis on cinematic fluidity.
I thought the effective use of the wonderful space of the royal apartments was one of the best aspects of the production. It certainly creates an atmosphere of sinful, sexual pleasure through installation sections with actors in a semi-state of undress (to be candid this was not as revealing you might see in a typical night club, though an orgiastic arrangement of sex dolls did make me smile somewhat). This is consistent with the decision to end the production with a sung version of the Earl of Rochester’s arch poem, ‘Signor Dildo’ (1973), about the new sexual pleasures available to aristocratic women: the poem is about exactly what you think it is. The company suggests that the production may not be suitable for under 16s and it might be embarrassing for parents with children in tow.
This performance is focused upon the exploration of the double-edged nature of rôles available for women in the new world of libertines (virgin, whore and nun), and the cult of beauty and passion opened up by the restoration, which replaced the dour world of the Puritan interregnum. There are some significant changes to Behn’s original and rather unwieldy plot to make this work. For instance, in the original text’s ending Hellena exchanges vows of love with the rakish Willmore. However, in this version Beatriz Romilly’s sparky Hellena decides she just wants sex with Willmore (played by an edgy, wolfishly charming Daniel Weyman): she isn’t interested in love. It is a feminist production, but one which is determined to show women as active explorers of their own needs and desires, albeit in a world of double-standards, rather than just passive victims of potential rape by libertines, (as is often common in production of this play such as the video version by Jules Wright and the Women’s Playhouse Trust/ Open University of 1994).
There are some good core performances to go with the performative razzle-dazzle. Nadia Cameron-Blakely’s Angelica makes for a beautiful, but elegant courtesan Angelica who falls victim to Willmore’s charms and her own desire for true love. Cloe Pirrie’s Florinda is suitably assertive, though David Ricardo-Pearce’s’ Bellville is perhaps too conventional a besotted lover in terms of the production’s overall tone, and is eclipsed by Daniel Weyman’s foppish, but predatory Willmore. What is arguable lacking though is any of the original play’s sense of mischievous comedy, as the text has been so transformed that it is hard to make the humour work, and perhaps to take pleasure so seriously suggests the English are still heirs to a rather Puritan view of sexuality.