The Rover (or The Banish’d Cavaliers)
by Aphra Behn
Directed by Loveday Ingram
Designer Lez Brotherston
Music by Grant Olding
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 17th September 2016, 13.30
Joseph Millson as Willmore, “the Rover” of the title, aka The captain
Patrick Robinson as Belvile, an English Colonel in love with Florinda
Patrick Knowles as Frederick, an English cavalier
Leander Deeny as Blunt, a wealthy Englishman
Don Pedro’s family:
Gyuri Sarossy as Don Pedro, a Noble Spaniard,
Faye Castelow as Hellena, sister to Don Pedro, designed to be a nun
Frances McNamee as Florinda, sister to Hellena
Emma Noakes as Valeria, Sister to Hellena & Florinda
Joe Allen as Stephano, page to Don Pedro
Sally Bankes as Callis, Governess to Florinda and Hellena
Jamie Wilkes as Don Antonio, The Viceroy’s Son
Alexandra Gilbraith as Angellica Bianca, a famous Courtesan
Allison McKenzie as Moretta, chief procurer to Angellica
Leon Lopez as Biskey, bravo to Angelika
Kellie Shirley as Lucetta, a whore
Chris Jack as Sancho, Pimp to Lucetta
Ashley Campbell as Phillipo
Lena Kaur as Adriana
Danusia Samal as Astrea
Eloise Secker as Aminta
Adam Cross –saxophone
Nick Lee- guitar
Phil Ward – percussion
Matt Heighway – double bass, bass guitar
Andrew Stone-Fewings – trumpet
Kevin Waterman – percussion
Carnival! Dance sequence from The Rover
The Rover was written by Aphra Behn (1640-1689), and she is said to be the first woman playwright in English. She had lived in Surinam, married a Dutchman, worked as a spy against the Dutch, probably had a spell in prison for debt, and started writing as “Astrea.” She wrote The Rover in 1677, and it proved so popular that she wrote a sequel in 1681 (The Rover- Part Two). The character of Willmore, the rover of the title, was based on John Wilmot, Lord Rochester, a notorious libertine.
Aphra Behn had more plays produced than Congreve. Her novel, Oroonoko, was published in 1688, making it one of the earliest novels in English, pre-dating Daniel Defoe by thirty years. It’s about a noble slave and is also the first recorded work from that point of view. I’m astonished that I not only studied English, but also the history of slavery, without ever encountering her name.
The Rover opened The Swan Theatre at the RSC in 1986 in repertory with The Two Noble Kinsmen and for the 30th anniversary, is in repertory with it again. It has been produced frequently in America, and I had (wrongly) assumed this was a PC promotion because of her gender. Not so. It is a fabulous play with powerful female roles. It’s far bawdier (and indeed empowered) than I had expected. It has the rombustious bawdiness and vigour of Jacobean drama, but it’s Restoration, so has none of the constraints. It is not “witty and mannered” like slightly later dramas either. It’s full on funny, bawdy and exciting … and we’re still into the energy of swordfights. The language shows how far English had advanced from Elizabethan towards modern in the sixty years separating it from Shakespeare’s death. There are no hoist with his own petard lines to puzzle out by resorting to footnotes.
If you look at Wikipedia, you’ll find a six page synopsis … better described as a six page blow by blow account of the entire plot. I tried to read it. Don’t bother. Yes, the plot is convoluted and laden with confusions and mistaken identity, but really, you will be able to follow it perfectly without reading the programme or any notes. Part of it is excellent direction, so that when people get disguised, they change on stage. We continue to know that the three sisters of Don Pedro are aristocrats (women of quality) when they’re dressed as gypsies. We understand (as with Much Ado About Nothing) that minimal masks render people completely unrecognizable to each other in spite of hands, skin colour, build, clothes etc.
Three sisters as gypsies: Florinda (Frances McNamee), Valeria (Emily Noakes), Hellena (Faye Castelow). The candy floss is a great carnival touch.
What do you need to know? It’s set twenty years earlier than its date of composition, so we’re in the era of the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. The Cavaliers are out of England … banished, and drinking toasts to “The Prince” (who would have become King Charles II by the time the play was written). It’s a group of three – Colonel Belville, Frederick and Blunt. Their friend, Willmore arrives. He’s called “captain” and his ship is mentioned. He’s a (wild) rover.
In the text, they’re in Naples, which was then under the Spanish crown, though here with the son of a Viceroy, a Mariachi band, songs in Spanish and a carnival, it feels far more like Latin America. It’s never stated, They’re exiles. It’s hot. it’s Spanish speaking. it’s carnival. That’s enough.
We meet the family of Don Pedro, who has three sisters. Don Pedro wants to marry off Florinda to an old man, but really this is a ploy to persuade her to wed Don Antonio, the son of the Viceroy. However, Florinda is in love with the bold Colonel Belville,, whom she met earlier in Pamplona when he rescued her from marauding soldiers. Hellena is destined for a nunnery, but is desperate to escape and experience life, men and sex. Valeria, the third sister, wants to escape too. They disguise themselves as gypsies and set off for the carnival. At the carnival, Willmore tries to seduce the disguised Hellena, and swears he will look at no other woman but her.
Angellica (Alexandra Gilbraith) wooed by Willmore (Joseph Millson)
A new courtesan, the ex-mistress of a Spanish general, is in town … Angellica Bianca. She’s up for offer at 1000 crowns a month. Don Antonio is keen to buy her services. Willmore is intent on obtaining her services free, ignoring his promises to Hellena. Angellica falls for our dashing rover, and she pays him instead of vice versa. There’s a lot of getting the vices versa. No innuendo is unstressed.
Throw in more confusions. Due to the disguise of their masks Don Pedro and Don Antonio decide to fight a duel. The Brits fight the Spanish. Willmore tries to force his attentions on Belville’s beloved Florinda thinking she’s a whore. Blunt is deceived by a real whore, Lucetta, robbed and thrown into a sewer. Confused? As above, you won’t be at all. It all makes sense on the day, and it’s all surrounded by the throb of carnival, so that in dialogues in the street, the rest of the carnival crowd stay swaying slowly in the background.
If you’re going, take your seats 15 minutes early. That’s when the band start, with three long songs in Spanish, with dancing, audience interaction. It’s brilliant as a concert, let alone the play that’s going to follow. The sax and trumpet led sound of Latin America runs throughout, but I particularly noticed a long scene where Matt Heighway stands on the balcony and his black electric bass guitar punctuates the scene with a riff very much like Papa Was A Rolling Stone.
Hellena (Faye Castelow) and “The Rover” … Willmore (Joseph Millson)
The costumes are the currently popular dressing up box mix, so that Willmore has a 17th century tunic and shirt over blue jeans and long boots in act one, leather trousers in act two. Belville has a Civil War long leather tunic. The Spanish dons are done up to the nines, though Don Pedro likes to appear in his underpants and get dressed by servants. The three sisters start out in 17th century gowns, but dress as gypsies in Carmen era skirts, except for Hellena who goes for tight red trousers, thigh length red boots, and a tight 17th century bodice over a dirndl. The band are in disteressed Mexican Day of The Dead or New Orleans Mardi Gras gear from the 20th century. Angellica is dressed in full Victoria’s Secret underwear with a red robe (later, just a sheet), while her procurer, Moretta is dressed in tight black leggings, a printed modern top and a bowler hat. Odd? It all works together and looks great throughout. Watch out for the Spanish costume that Blunt appears in at the end … having had to employ a local tailor after Lucetta stole his clothes.
Colonel Belville (Patrick Robinson) with Willmore (Joseph Millson)
The exuberance is non-stop. Perfect casting. Joseph Millson is Willmore, and never has a swash been buckled with such aplomb. If I were casting a film of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series tomorrow, he’d walk into the part. Willmore is Flashman’s spiritual ancestor. He’s a rogue, a liar, a womanizer, a would-be rapist, but we all like him. Millson is brilliant full stop, but particularly so in asides and reactions to the audience … knowing winks, raised eyebrows, gestures. It’s this “private interaction” with the audience that draws us in to his side so successfully. In the second half, he does the best stage drunk of a year filled with them (just last weekend, we saw No Man’s Land and The Entertainer which meant non-stop stage drunks). The effort of trying to support himself on two Swan Theatre posts which are JUST too far apart was memorable.
Joseph Millson is The Rover
There are really three female leads, a joy in a play written in 1677, and they’re all assertive parts. Hellena is a lovely role, and Faye Castelow takes it perfectly. We first saw her as Hermia in Headlong’s “Hollywood” production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and have followed her with interest since. Hellena will not be consigned to a nunnery. She wants to go out and get laid, basically. To throw off the confining shackles of family and be herself.
Angellica has a complex role, going from paid courtesan to lust for Willmore to deeply hurt at his eye for the younger Hellena (who is not co-incidentally an heiress worth 200,000 crowns a year …). Alexandra Gilbraith is first rate in a part that Nell Gwynne was said to have come out of retirement to play in the first production. Given that Angellica used to be the mistress of a famous Spanish general, that reference would have been fun for 1677 audiences. Others say that “Mrs Gwin” in the 1677 cast list was another actress, Anne Quin. The Nell Gwynne tale is too good not to repeat.
One of my favourite scenes was the trio on stage. Angellica is confronting Willmore, and Hellena is disguised as a French boy. Watch out for the business with the stick on beard. On our afternoon, it was so funny, with so much comedy from all three, that the actors started corpsing. Millson, I’m sure was adding to the script when he mentioned Hellena’s “vaguely” French accent. It got a huge laugh, but then again the whole play is the most I’ve laughed out loud this year, as well as the one I’ve tapped my feet most enthusiastically to.
Frances McNamee’s Florinda is the other major part, going from fine Spanish lady to gypsy, then waiting for Belville at her garden gate in her nightdress only to be confronted by Willmore who thinks her services are for hire.
It doesn’t end there. Allison McKenzie’s Moretta, servant, or rather pimp, to Angellica commands her scenes too … interestingly her Scottish accent is turned up several notches over her light burr in Two Noble Kinsmen, supporting my theory that actors should have a level control on accents. She has.
Don Pedro (Gyuri Sarossy) and Don Antonio (Jamie Wilkes) are another double act. Both are magnificently proud. Great aggressive Flamenco stomping contest between them, hilarious sword fights. After one brawl between the Spanish and the English, our winning cavaliers break into Rule Britannia!
Blunt (Leander Deeny) with Frederick (Patrick Knowles)
You have to pick out Leander Deeny as Blunt, very much the fall guy among the English contingent. He has the clown role, and has been assigned to look after the group’s cash in the biggest satchel I have ever seen. He is easily seduced by Lucetta, and gets loads of laughs … his one night of passion was better than “all the days he’s passed in Essex.” He ends up propelled into the sewer, crawling out covered in ordure in his underpants.
My admiration for the number of times the stage was completely filled with musicians, dancing and acting simultaneously is boundless. The director has also changed the order of at least the first two scenes. The text has the three sisters at home with their governess, Callis (Sally Bankes), first, which is followed by the arrival of our English lads. This production reverses the order, giving us a louder more dramatic first scene, with Willmore swinging in like Erroll Flynn on a rope.
Valeria, Florinda and Hellena again – a play about women, after all!
Aphra Behn is a revelation to me. I’m hoping that this great production will inspire further productions of her plays.
I’m beginning to feel that I’ve been awarding five stars too liberally in 2016, but actually it’s an above average year for quality. I guess all five stars should be equal, but The Rover stands with the two versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (The RSC Play for A Nation, and The Globe production) as “more equal than the others.” It’s running until February, and we want very much to see it again.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID:
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times *****
I needed to go and lie down in a cool, dark room after seeing Loveday Ingram’s glorious revival of Aphra Behn’s subversive 1677 Restoration romp. Lawks a-mussy, how many people are there on that stage to fall in love with!
Michael Billington, Guardian ****
(Its) good humour and sheer sexiness will, I suspect, make it one of the RSC’s most popular hits.
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph, ****
Few actors of (Joseph Millson’s) generation can boast such a virile presence – you almost wonder whether they need to take out insurance on his pelvis, so often is it used to thrust home a bawdy emphasis.
Sam Marlowe, The Times ****
Natasha Tripney, The Stage ****
Jane Edwardes, Sunday Times ****
LINKS TO REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG
This play is in repertory with The Two Noble Kinsmen,and many of the cast appear in both
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Headlong 2011 (Hermia)
The Roaring Girl by Dekker & Middleton, RSC 2014 (Mary Fitzallard)
The Witch of Edmonton, by Rowley, Dekker, Ford, RSC 2014 (Susan)
The White Devil by John Webster, RSC 2014 (Isabella)
Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw, National Theatre 2014 (Violet)
The Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC 2012 (Mistress Ford)
The Two Noble Kinsmen, RSC, Swan Theatre, 2016
The Seagull, Headlong / Nuffield 2013 (Trigorin)
The Seven Year Itch by George Axelrod, Salisbury Playhouse
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Cheek by Jowl , by John Ford Nuffield