Favourite Fictional Women: Hellena from The Rover

Because Company B is currently staging one of my mostest favouritest plays, Aphra Behn’s The Rover, I am re-posting here an old Friday Hoyden piece from over at Hoyden About Town.

The Rover is one of the all-time great Restoration comedies. One of the greatest silly romps of any era of playwriting, in fact, because it has everything: disguises, sword fights, carnival, a girl dressed as a boy, thwarted lovers, drunken shenanigans, sex, danger and a jilted courtesan.

It begins with the information that Florinda is to be forced to marry an old man, in a match arranged by her father (despite her known love for the cavalier Belvile), and that her younger sister Hellena will be made a nun, the news delivered by their brother. Hellena immediately gets a long speech where she describes the horror ahead for Florinda in vivid detail, “And this man you must kiss, nay, you must kiss none but him too, and nuzzle through his beard to find his lips – and this you must submit to for threescore years, and all for a jointure!” (A jointure was the portion a widow inherited when her husband died.) “Is’t not enough you make a nun of me, but you must cast my sister away too, exposing her to a worse confinement than a religious life?”

When The Rover was first performed, Hellena was played by Elizabeth Barry, who was on her way to becoming the most popular actress on the stage at the time. Behn had a great relationship with many star actresses, like Barry, Anne Bracegirdle, Nell Gwynn and Mary Betterton, and wrote them wonderful roles.

Portrait of a brunette white woman in Restoration dress.

Aphra Behn

Hellena is the ultimate witty wench, and nothing so trivial as the rule of her father and brother and the conventions of ladylike behaviour is going to keep her down. She persuades her sister and their cousin Valeria to put on masks and gypsy costumes, and sneak out to join the festivities in the town, for it is Carnival time. Florinda hopes to find her lover and make plans for a clandestine wedding, but Hellena just wants to see the world and have some fun.

When she encounters Belvile’s outrageous friend Willmore she spots a kindred spirit. Similarly to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the real hero and heroine are not the nice couple Belvile and Florinda, but the rakish Willmore and the incorrigible Hellena. These two share some of the wittiest and most sexually frank banter ever staged. How often has a woman needed to have this rejoinder to hand?:

Willmore: Thy lodging, Sweetheart, thy lodging, or I’m a dead man.

Hellena: Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder, if we converse with you men?

When he suggests that they retire to bed without the fuss and bother of a wedding Helena’s response is, “And what shall I get? A cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of Repentance at my Back?”. Much more pleasingly pragmatic than concern for her virtue. Not that she is actually against the pastime he is proposing. She is quite open about her keenness to explore the carnal possibilities with Willmore, as long as it happens on her terms. When she tells him that she is destined for the convent she observes, ”I perceive, Father Captain, you would impose no severe penance on her who was inclin’d to console her self before she took orders.” My favourite line of Willmore’s is when he speaks of Helena in terms of one of the most common metaphors for her kind – a falcon: “give me a mad Mistress when mew’d, and in flying one I dare trust upon the wing, that whilst she’s kind will come to the lure.” Which means that he wants a girlfriend who hates being confined. He would rather she flew free, and he will simply trust that she will come back to him when he calls her. Ahhhh…

Review of the current production is on its way.

C17th portrait of seated woman.

Portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth, depicted in the popular style of the period by Peter Lely (held in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

A World of Words

Cyrano de Bergerac by Sport for Jove at the York Theatre, Seymour Centre

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Old Vic Theatre via National Theatre Live

Damien Ryan’s adaptation of the nineteenth century play about the seventeenth century poet is such a treat for its unabashed revelling in words. Stoppard’s eternally popular work in response to the most famously wordy of plays is similar. Has Ryan been influenced by growing up with Stoppard as a model or, given that he was adapting an existing work, and that Stoppard is a well-educated sort of chap, has Stoppard been influenced by growing up with Rostand?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was a glorious onslaught of magnificent performances. Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire leave their hearts out there on the stage, and David Haig as the player king (supported by a sublime consort of silent but expressive players) does the same with every other limb and organ. Diana Simmonds’ insightful piece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Not the Movie, digs into all the aspects of the experience of watching live theatre via a broadcast to cinema. All her reservations are warranted, but I will never be anything other than grateful to not miss out on these wonderful performances going on so far away. There were times when the close ups made possible by the multiple cameras used in the broadcast spoiled the sense, so important to this play, that the protagonists are always situated within a bigger picture. However, this did allow for a full appreciation of the emotional detail the actors delivered.

Yong man in black ruff sits surrounded by stage lights.

Luke Mullins doing John Barrymore (Photo credit: Manuel Harlan)

Vintage B&W headshot of John Barrymore

Not Luke Mullins

Luke Mullins is utterly Hamlet in the young John Barrymore matinee idol mould. When he was a local lad I was dying for him to get his ‘turn’ to do Hamlet, though he once told me frankly that the part didn’t interest him as much as others he hoped to try. I suspect he is having much more fun doing it this way, using only Hamlet’s lines, but imbuing them with such clear self-involvement and confidence in his own importance that it creates the perfect foil for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so painfully convinced of their inconsequentiality.

One more thing that this production and Cyrano have in common is that both are willing to be as long as they need to be, which is long, but are so engaging that it is sad when they end. Another is their joyous, open theatricality. Theatre does not need to imitate life in order to comment on life, and the commentary of life is fulsome and touching here on these stages.

It doesn’t hurt to pause and consider how overwhelmingly masculine are these created worlds. It is not just that the source material Hamlet provides has only two female characters, or that Cyrano is a soldier, it’s a whole way of placing the women as ornaments or edifices to be moved around to provide the men with things to do. In R&G all the other Hamlet characters are shadows, but the play adds no female characters of its own. In this production, thank goodness, some of the troupe of players are women, which has to be overlooked during the repeated, laboured jokes about how the boy player, ‘Alfred’, is used whenever a woman is required. In Cyrano, Lizzie Schebesta is a charming and fully realised Roxanne, and this makes it infuriating to see the men chewing their hearts out over their love for her and the eternal question of her potential love for them without ever feeling obligated to communicate with her honestly as an adult. The stories of how words are the channel for a soul forced to spill its banks are so clustered around men, a little of me is always wistful hearing them. When Shakespeare wrote, “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart / Or else my heart concealing it will break,” it was for a female character, and I would take such delight in seeing the women in plays about virtuoso speakers be more than admiring listeners.

No Director thinks through the implied meaning of their chosen setting as rigorously as Ryan, and his decision to set Cyrano in the late nineteenth century, when stumbling into a sword fight was still a risk, Bohemian ideals had been a huge influence for several decades, but were starting to crumble, and the Great War lay only a generation ahead, made every facet of the story work. Both people being blown to bits by canon fire and people caring that much about poetry feel close enough to home in this context. A surprise was that one of the most moving scenes came when Christian is closest to telling Roxanne that he is not the author of the letters that have kept her so enthralled. His need to beg her to love him for those things that we dismiss as shallow, his handsome flesh, because that is his true self, was sweetly genuine. It is a credit to the production that a piece so focused around a central character should have not a single weak link in the ensemble. The life of the event comes from all the supporting cast being so present and energised. All those large personalities (John Turnbull’s artistic baker, Julian Garner’s honourable and unappreciated Le Bret, Wendy Strehlow’s hilarious Duenna, Bernadette Ryan’s luminous actress, Andrew Johnston leaping in and out of different roles, but it is impractical to name-check all the talent here) support the whole, rather than compete. Having said that, this is certainly Cyrano’s show from first to last, and the grand duel in the first act, flashing blade and wit simultaneously, was as dazzling as a night of fireworks.

I dearly hope we are entering another phase where theatre is willing to love words. There are periods when mimicking the communication style of the everyday seems to be the only agreed upon noble goal, and phases when creating a striking visual image and expressing emotion through movement are all the fashionable theatre is interested in, but I enjoy theatre (this will come as a surprise to no one) that enjoys language. The last couple of weeks have been a treat, precisely in the manner of all the jovial comparisons made by Cyrano and his cohort between poetry and Monsieur Ragueneau’s delectable cakes.

group of people in C19th costume in blue light, with moon behind.

Cyrano de Bergarac (photo credit Philip Erbacher, via Sport for Jove website)

Now is a great time to buy my book

Sad Update: the sale is over, and it’s gone back to the regular price. But it’s still a great time to ask your library to buy it!

“When is it not?” I hear you ask. So true. But right now Palgrave is discounting e-books, so although I won’t be able to sign this version for you, you will be able to read it without the usual overdraft required to own an academic monograph. Not sure how long the sale is on, so best if you get onto it today.

Cover of book showing a woman releasing a falcon, and the text "Shakespeare and the Shrew: Performing the Defiant Female Voice".

Shakespeare and the Shrew by Anna Kamaralli

2017 – a tough year for Shakespeare?

I apologise for leaving this site languishing. While the winding up of 2016 – the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – gave me a great deal to think about, it has all been too big or too small to translate to the page with any ease.

So, I finished my year of tracking all the Shakespeare things over at ShakespeareTwentyScore.org, having only succeeded in making a tiny proportion of what I wanted to happen, happen. The Margaret Project was a definite high point, with exciting though small-scale results. We saw great work being conjured out of nothing in Auckland and Perth, and in the form of the indomitable Sport for Jove setting up their Shakespeare Carnival for schools (I really hope this initiative flourishes as it deserves). Shakespeare Reloaded (Sydney University) and the Lost Plays Database (Melbourne University), not to mention the cutting-edge stylistics work going on at the University of Newcastle, have kept a handful of Australian players in this field in higher education. But I had hoped that I could be part of a shift towards reducing the time spent being forced to justify the very existence of these kinds of research and performance endeavours, and instead my instinct is that we are only having to do it more and more.

bare stage with 4 actors, young man kneels to be knighted with a sword.

Margaret of Anjou at the University of Notre Dame

In a time when we are all called to be activists it is hard to know how to approach a commitment to theatre or literature. I have always offered the loudest support to those who write about how important artists are in times of social crisis or need. A society without artists is a wasteland. But, in truth, there will always be artists, no one will find a way to make them stop being artists. The trickier question is, what becomes of a society that is hostile to artists? To one that marshals its forces to make life for artists as difficult as it possibly can? Such that those who pursue that life are stressed and despairing, and those who lack the luxury of economic stability from other sources are siphoned off into non-artistic fields.

The same questions are thistles in the feet of academia, and all intellectual pursuits. Growing up in country Australia I was familiar with default hostility to smart people before I knew there were places in the world that encouraged thought or difference, but believing I had left all that behind, I didn’t expect it to chase me down years later. Now those attitudes seem to be taking over everything, even the running of universities.

Actors on a bare stage, holding scripts.

Margaret of Anjou at the University of Notre Dame

While I still don’t doubt the value of Shakespeare, I doubt our ability in the present climate to convince anyone with power of that value. On a small canvas, watching or working on Shakespeare will continue to do all the great things it always does. It will give people confidence and a voice. It will forge a line connecting us to our humanity, get us talking about what matters to us, and give us the scope and language to do it. It will help us expand our self-expression – to think more, feel more, allow challenge and complexity into our lives. Teachers will be great, actors will be great, directors determined to scrape together co-op productions, and to build school extension programs will all continue to be fabulous. I think it will be a while, however, before we go through another cultural shift where this wonderful work is accorded general respect, or is considered worthy of institutional support.

I intend to continue behaving as if I have hope, because it’s the least I can do for my son, and for those who are making real sacrifices and taking genuine risks. Shakespeare I don’t have to worry about. Those plays will still be there, still being used by clever, talented people when I regroup and rejoin the fight.