by Aphra Behn / 2018, Webber Douglas Studio, Central / Adapted and directed by Ben Naylor and Anna Healey / Design by Manuela Harding / Lighting by Johanne Jensen / Sound by Dan Balfour / Fight direction by Bethan Clark / Voice by Morwenna Rowe / Assistant direction and choreography by Kieran Mortell
The Rover is an important play – perhaps even a serious one – wearing the mask of a very silly play indeed. It’s important for its status as the masterpiece – or is it just the best play? – by the English language’s first professional female playwright. But it’s also a vital record and biting satire of a historical moment: the exile of Cavaliers under the Commonwealth seen through the lens of the dizzy, prejudiced and apprehensive libertinism of the upper classes of the early Restoration.
Is it, though, a good play? After directing it, I still can’t really tell. It doesn’t do most of the things I want a classic play to do: the narrative is tortuously confusing, the psychology of character rudimentary and implausible, the tone inconsistent as if by accident rather than design. It has some excellent, witty and provocative dialogue, but overall the structure creaks – especially if it’s not shored up by an immediate context. Certainly, our cabaret-style production was silly; but it was also angrily political, winding together threads of Brexit and #metoo, a play of the Restoration 1%, transported to the here and now.
To accomplish this contemporary reboot, we framed the play with a prologue and epilogue, rewritten from Behn’s original highly politicised pro/epilogues: Aphra herself addressing the audience of today in the clanking but acerbic political verse fashionable in late 17th-century theatre.
A microcosm of our nation’s modern error / The Civil War that follows hard the War on Terror / Who would have thought such hellish times to have seen / Not 1677, but 2018? / This play to you by Aphra Behn’s addressed / I’m afraid it does not pass the Bechdel Test …
There are extensive parallels between the geo- and gender- politics of the play and those of today; we were able to leverage it quite precisely as a critical dramatic analysis of our current moment. In the story of four posh English lads on a Carnival weekend in Naples, we referenced The Inbetweeners, the Three Lions culture, the stag do’s we’ve regretted, blue passports, and everything we’ve lost since the Brexit referendum (most particularly our innocence); in the misogyny of the leading characters we explored the toxic permissiveness of a pre-Weinstein moment.
This misogyny, and Behn’s apparent tolerance of it in her hero, Willmore (modelled on her friend the Earl of Rochester), is always a problem with the conclusion of The Rover. Willmore sins in the garden, and yet is redeemed, only a little chastened, at the play’s conclusion. Making the play in 2018, we couldn’t let the two-times-in-one-night attempted rapist and serial sex-pest get away with it. So Aphra returned at the end to destroy her creation, in a dea ex machina brilliantly suggested by the actors – and which pleasingly satisfied the Chekhovian principle regarding the play’s unfired gun.
Mostly The Rover was difficult rather than fun to make. Despite the improvisational brilliance of the 2018 MA Acting cohort, the play’s tone and style is so wildly various that it was near impossible in countless instances to make the crucial theatrical choice: this or that? That said, one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever had in rehearsal was when we made the chase sequence between acts 4 and 5, in which we allowed our silliness full rein, as well as testing the incredible inspiration and organisation of the costume team and dressers. The choreography involved the entire cast in an intricate and breathless race both inside the theatre and outside it, as each actor passed through the space multiple times in multiple directions (and in some cases in multiple guises), with obligatory card players so engrossed in their game that they don’t see the mayhem around them. We threw a few curveballs into the sequence, which is mad enough in Behn’s original conception to admit them: a disconsolate drag queen to kick it off; Aphra herself, desperately trying to follow her own story; Trump and Putin waltzing to the Blue Danube; and finally a variety of bear-related exits.
One of the other great joys of this production was the mad, edgy score and sound design which Dan Balfour and Anna Healey created out of odds and ends of Eurotrash, cabaret and gypsy music. Dan’s work reached its technical zenith in the incredibly precise door-mime sequence which followed the chase; but he also did a terrific arrangement of my old friend Jon Boden’s beautiful version of Behn’s one song lyric in the play, sung by Emily Waters:
The photography, as usual, is by Patrick Baldwin. The video, alas, is by me.