By Company B at Belvoir St Theatre
Photo credit: Nathan Atkins. Check out his full gallery at The AU Review.
It is a truth of our shallow, gullible world that attractive people can get away with being appalling. The Rover is a good humoured look at how outrageously a charming man can behave without the risk of any real consequences. Handing the role of Willmore, the Rover, to Toby Schmitz, then, was almost inevitable. He really only does one routine, but he does it with such charm.
In the interests of full disclosure: I am absurdly emotionally invested in this play. I love it so much that I shoehorn it into classes I teach where it doesn’t really fit, just so I can watch students do scenes from it. I have edited it for performance. I think it is one of the great pieces of writing for theatre.
So forgive my over-attention to apparently minor things if my take on this very sexy production is that there were certain aspects that weren’t sexy enough. This has nothing to do with the actors, who are a delight, and have understood how much of making stage chemistry work is to look the other person straight in the eye and say it like you mean it. It was successfully sizzling in all the most obvious places. Willmore and Angelica seducing each other is as buoyant and smart as that scene should be. Schmitz’s physical comic schtick when climbing through her window and needing to reach down for his sword was a joy. I always thought of Angelica as best portrayed older than she is here, but Nikki Shiels can’t be faulted in the role, she is equal parts glamorous and funny, and she works the Anita Ekberg vibe like she was born to it. Willmore’s banter with Hellena is sparky and unforced. I am a bit puzzled over why Taylor Ferguson as Hellena spends so much time shouting and being cross, when the text makes such a big deal about how good-humoured she is, and this sacrifices some of the moments of spiciest flirtation. But everyone is very convincingly up for it at any time of the day or night, and this universal horniness dovetails beautifully with layering on the comic delivery thick.
This being the general mood, there were places where the production could have more fully embraced excess. If there is to be a costume rack kept on stage, let it be huge and spilling over, if your girls are going to disguise themselves as gypsies, let them deck themselves in an abundance of petticoats and mismatched fabrics and colours, if they are to be masked, let the masks be gorgeous. The design here was sometimes overly timid, and there were some very astute costuming choices that I would have liked to see cranked up another notch. Give Hellena something more vibrant than a beige cotton crop-top peasant blouse in which to embrace her first Carnival. The cues taken from Fellini are a great response to recasting the text as free from any exacting period, but La Dolce Vita employed much bigger ball gowns and less cautious encounters with the fountain. Callis, the governess, appearing in a different costume every time she comes on is on the right track, and is a hoot. In this role, Kiruna Stamwell never once fails to hit a beat – marvellous (and the show’s final image of her and Megan Wilding, the only two people in this world who have any work to do, was perfection). The mixed-period solution of having the men wear scruffy skinny jeans, but still have excellent boots and rapiers works a treat.
The rule for accents in this production seems to be “do whatever you have on hand”, which is fine, and fun, but gets a bit confusing when it bumps up against an apparent misunderstanding about the references to characters being ‘Spanish’, when the setting is explicitly Naples. Antonio uses a Spanish accent, probably for the sake of the easy laughs offered by the perceived lisp, but part of the key point of the role is that he is the most powerful local authority (i.e. not an outsider), by contrast with the vagabond exile protagonists. At the time this play is set a fair sized chunk of Italy, including Naples, was part of the Spanish Empire, so you could be both Italian and Spanish in this world. What you can’t be is both Neapolitan and Castilian.
A much more questionable area of this production is the decision (not textually based, but perfectly dramaturgically effective) to make Don Pedro and Don Antonio same-sex attracted, but then to equate gay with effeminate, and gay and effeminate with ridiculous. Andre de Vanny (Don Pedro) is a wildly talented performer, clearly a dancer, probably an acrobat, and built in such a fashion as to show the work it takes for a person to be able to move like that. To keep implying a lack of manliness on his part, and then mock it, is to waste a whole spectrum of attractive sexualities. It is very likely indeed that at some point in history, or many, a gay man with legal power over his sister has married her to the man he wants to remain close to, for his own interests. If that was the way they wanted to take it there could be a real urgency to showing the realities of this kind of selfish power. This production merely made it a gag, his being drawn to dresses, in tandem with a stutter, and repeated jokes about him losing his sword, making a single parcel of the choice to make him despised instead of nervously respected by the manly Englishmen. Playing him as in love with Antonio is a clever idea, ridiculing him for it is beneath us.
The direction taken with the part of Antonio was even more wretched. Nathan Lovejoy is a skilled comic actor, and the winner of the ensemble’s competition for the most deftly executed add-on gags (physical and verbal). As Frederick he is great, as Antonio he is asked to make himself a crude joke, mincing and posing in a ludicrous wig, and clearly terrifying our virile, straight heroes with the idea that he might hit on them. If you want to make the scene where Antonio asks Belvile to step in for him in a duel genuinely homoerotic I am so there for that (I happen to think it’s a searingly hot scene, though in a more subtle way than the overtly heterosexual encounters). Instead the implication that Antonio might be going to try to seduce his captive is played as wholly farcical. Angelica leaves her last scene in the play with Antonio. If she is not to be seen as the cliché of the openly sexual woman who must conclude the story punished or failing, then Antonio needs to be an attractive prospect, which is exactly what he is in the script. Florinda admits she has no argument to offer against marrying him, except that she is in love with Belvile. Frankly, I expected a more sophisticated take on sexuality from Belvoir.
There is a good deal of queer space in the text of The Rover, and I know I’m not the only one who sees it, because a very clever student of mine once wrote me an essay on it: “These moments could be read as being for comic effect, and this was certainly one of Behn’s aims, but Blunt’s tendency to share moments of sexual elation with Frederick suggests a bond that while not necessarily conventionally erotic, goes beyond the platonic.” (Michael Booker, 2015) The masculine sexuality of the rake in this period was somewhat more dependent on class than gender, and an upper-class libertine could convincingly be attracted to both Antonio and Angelica, or Belvile and Florinda and Don Pedro and Angelica. How sad if Aphra Behn is too radical for a Sydney Director to be willing to trust his audience with her material. The other failure of courage comes in the excision of the true intensity of the threat of male violence against women, which is dealt with frankly in the full text. “It would anger us vilely to be truss’d up for a rape upon a maid of quality, when we only believe we ruffle a harlot.” This is what Fred says to Blunt as a reason for delaying in carrying out a pack rape. Again, an effeminate signifier is used as a way to diffuse masculine power, when Blunt puts on a pink dressing gown for the scene where he attempts to assault Florinda. In conjunction with restrained blocking we aren’t encouraged to experience a genuine fear for her. The darkest lines are cut, as is the collusion of his friends, who draw lots for the first go at her, in the full text. Of course it’s a risk to allow the audience to see characters they have been building up an affection for being dreadful. But doing Restoration comedy without risk is giving in to the misrepresentation of the genre as empty confectionary.
This is a wonderful opportunity to see a glorious play done with all the verve it deserves. Toby Schmitz was born for this gig, and it is a full ensemble success. The comic delivery and romantic energy from all involved mean everyone should revel in its revels. But artists and audience alike should all be brave enough to embrace the full range of colours of the original text, including the rainbow and the dark. Let it be known that I am calling out this Director as a coward, and he may answer me as he will, with rapiers at midnight on the Molo.