The Rover: Charm Offensive

By Company B at Belvoir St Theatre

Some spoilers lie ahead, best read as a reflection after seeing the show.

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.

Young man in boots and sword, young blond woman in peasant skirt and mask leans over him.

Willmore and Hellena (Image: Nathan Atkins)

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. His 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.

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 a bit 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.

Two young men duelling with rapiers.

Belvile and Don Pedro, doing what we go to these plays to see

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. 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.

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.

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