Toby Schmitz stars in this new production of Aphra Behn's battle-of-the-sexes comedy
Aphra Behn was cooler than you. Not only was she a spy for King Charles II against the Dutch, she was also the first woman to make a living as a playwright. The Rover debuted in 1677, just a few generations after Shakespeare made his apparently indelible mark on the theatrical canon, and only a few years after the English Puritan regime lifted their 18-year ban on plays. And Behn wasn’t interested in writing a particularly polite or ladylike play now she had her stage. No, The Rover is a lusty, swashbuckling story of sex, desire, and love in Naples during the freewheeling Carnival.
Sisters Hellena (Taylor Ferguson) and Florinda (Elizabeth Nabbben) want to escape their penned-in noble lives for the festival fray. Hellena craves at least one last night of freedom before she takes her religious vows, and Florinda plans to marry the man of her dreams before she’s stuck with the dud match her brother (Andre de Vanny) has selected for her.
The sisters become entangled with a group of exiled English gentlemen: one is Florinda’s beloved Colonel Belville (Leon Ford); the others – his friends Frederick (Nathan Lovejoy) and Blunt (Gareth Davies) – are just along for the sex and canary wine. Also in Naples for a good time is Willmore (Black Sails star Toby Schmitz), the eponymous Rover. He’s hot and he knows it, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake. The latest target? Well it’s either not-so-chaste Hellena or Angellica Bianca (Nikki Shiels), a famous courtesan. Missed connections, duels, and many declarations of love ensue.
In Eamon Flack’s production, Aphra Behn’s own words – more or less – open the production. The playwright (per Shiels, drinking a beer and full of swagger) addresses the audience, explaining how her masculine side (as a writer and poet) can never be reconciled by the public with her feminine side (her womanhood). If any audience members have a problem with seeing a woman playwright, she suggests they kindly “fuck off.”
This irreverent, indulgent balance of Restoration-era text and loving Australian send-up sets the tone of the production. While it’s pro-woman and women’s stories, it’s not feminist by any stretch – men still exert their sexual and social power over women at every turn – but the female characters on stage at least have their own sense of agency. The production owes much to a specific local performance lexicon that revels in blowing dust from the classics with contemporary humour.
You won’t see this kind of tone on Bell Shakespeare’s stages, where the late Will is king, but if you grew up with Craig Schaeffer’s Pirates of Penzance, with Jon English mucking about as the Pirate King, you’ll see a direct link between that sword-fighting love fest and this one. The sight gags are similar (a character who can’t strike a particular pose, no matter how often he tries) and so are the riffs on language (think “orphan/often”). It’s laughter first, second, and third. Reverence for the outdated but still beloved text is certainly not the major driver of this production, and it’s all the better for it.
Toby Schmitz was born to play the Rover. He quips asides to the audience and acknowledges their laughter with a quirked brow and preen; he has an innate magnetism that lends him an air of believability as a 17th century heartbreaker. He more than meets his match in Ferguson’s Hellena, who is just as daring and twice as charming. But the entire cast is a delight: Shiels’ courtesan is a carefully constructed and consistent caricature; Gareth Davies’ Blunt is the Pierrot of the group, just a few steps behind his effortlessly cool cavalier friends (Ford and Lovejoy); and Nabben’s yearning lover is creating her own destiny.
Kiruna Stamwell (who plays the sisters’ governess Callis) and Megan Wilding (playing Moretta, Angellica’s aide) are probably the funniest performers on stage. Wilding’s Moretta has no time for the play’s comedy of manners trappings, but loves a duel; she’ll light a cigarette and swear to herself when the plot gets too tangled, which places her instantly on the side of the audience.
In Flack’s production (shaped also by Charlotte Bradley’s dramaturgy), Wilding’s Moretta rights a few common stage wrongs. As a ‘maid’ character, she’s expected to mop up a mess on Mel Page’s tiled palazzo set. She immediately rebels – breaking the fourth wall to tell the stage manager that the only black woman on stage won’t be cleaning; and when the task is taken up by the assistant stage manager, who is a woman, she won’t stand for that either. It’s a subtle reframing of classic prejudice through a 21st century lens. When the male cast gets down on their knees to scrub up the mess under Wilding’s supervision, it feels like a small revolution.
The play can’t keep up its cracking pace forever. At almost three hours long, the second act is running on charm and fumes. It still works, but it’s less plot-packed than the first act and the jokes start to become a little more predictable; comfortable rather than laugh-out-loud funny. More could have been cut from the text to match Flack’s buoyant and relentless staging. But it’s still brash and guaranteed to give you a good time. Settle in and let it entertain you.