Richard Lutz reviews The Rover at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon.
Thirty years ago, The Royal Shakespeare Company opened its new Swan Theatre with a little known play called The Rover. It was written by a forgotten Restoration woman writer called Aphra Behn who upset the 17th century sexual apple cart as she earned her living writing, spying and cavorting.
Now three decades later, the company has restored this bawdy dark comedy. Joseph Millson is a dab hand as Wilmore, the aforesaid Rover – an exiled Cavalier landing during carnival time in Naples to basically sow wild oats and, well, sow some more wild oats. Millson couldn’t have done a better job. He is the grade A stag night reveller, a certified scrotum-obsessed jack the lad who will go after anything in a skirt and find himself tied to the lamppost with a pair of traffic cones glued to his head in the morning.
“..bawdy, caustic, raucous..worth every penny for a ticket.”
As a women writer in a man’s world, Behn walks a thin line. She has to conform to the conventions of the times when the monarchy was restored by Charles II. But she has a telling thing or two to say about the role of women, their need to trick and outsmart men and the farce of marriage and subservience.
The author has her say through the role of courtesan Angellica Bianca (note the similar initials: AB). In the hands of actor Alexandra Gilbreath, she is both seductress and caustic commentator on how the war and games of the sexes were played out in the 1670’s, when this work was produced.
Galbreath is the real star here and if you want to find out more about the mysterious Behn, it is worth listening to how the courtesan is portrayed in this central role, even to the extent of being in control of the plot’s men but losing her lover Wilmore to the innocent Hellena (gamely portrayed by Faye Castelow) at the end.
But, in essence, this is a goodtime play let loose on the stage thanks to the loosening of hard times after the Puritans lost control. It’s worth every penny for a ticket.
Played in the still gorgeous Swan Theatre, now a thirty year old veteran venue, it uses music, lighting and dance to great wild effect. There is plenty of humour, bawdiness, outright sexual banter and a great cast of supporting cavaliers, whores, rural buffoons and cocky aristocrats to make it a terrific night out. Aphra Benn would have enjoyed it more than 330 years after first staging it.
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, until 11th February. Box office: 01789 403493.