Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Rover - Aphra Behn

Last night was (what I think is) our last visit to Stratford and the RSC for this year. We went to see Aphra Behn's 'The Rover', partly out of a sense of guilt that none of us actually knew anything about her, or her work, despite it falling within the remit of things all 3 of us are interested in.

Aphra Behn - playwright, poet, spy, translator of science, novelist, Tory, political propagandist, royalist, and first English woman to make a living out of her writing. It's quite a CV for anyone, that it's for a woman born in 1640, and who died in 1689 is something to think about. She seems to have been both ahead of her and very much of it - certainly the Restoration period seems to have been the sort of society where such a woman could flourish.

the reason I haven't ever really explored her work before is that 'Oroonoka', the novel I've seen in book shops most often (though not available in Leicester today - I looked) never appealed to me as something to read for pleasure. I can't deny that it looks like something I should have read - but that's a long list.

'The Rover' is far more appealing. During the exile of Charles II a band of cavaliers including Colonel Belvile and Captain Willmore (possibly based on the Earl of Rochester who's family name was Wilmot) find themselves in a foreign country at carnival time. Belvile is in love with Florinda who's father and brother both have different, but equally unwelcome husbands in mind for her. Florinda wants Belvile. Her sister, Hellena (played by the very good Faye Castelow) is destined for a convent, but has other ideas.

That other idea turns out to be Willmore, the rover, who is happy enough to oblige. He's also happy to oblige the famous courtesan Angellica Bianca, and when he stumbles across Florinda she narrowly avoids being obliged too. Angellica, who for the first time has taken a lover rather than a patron, objects. With a gun. The much younger Hellena minds less - she'll take Willmore as he is, but then he does represent freedom, and what's fidelity compared to that? And it's all set against the anarchic energy of the carnival when just about anything could happen.

It was good to be back in The Swan, I love that theatre - not to big, not to small, and I've never been disappointed by anything I've seen there. I'm also increasingly of the opinion that you can't go wrong with a restoration comedy (I'm assuming the duff ones have no chances of being revived). This one was as witty, energetic, bawdy, and subversive as we could have hoped for.

I was about to start on how much 'The Rover' makes of the double standards applied to women, but on reflection I'll leave that until (if) I get round to reading the script. It was an interesting play which provided plenty to think about, but mostly what I came out thinking about was how much fun it was. Before the play even starts there's music and dancing to set the carnival mood, there is no fourth wall, the set and costumes were perfect (minimal set, gorgeous costumes made up of a clever mix of modern and period clothes) and excellent all round performances.

Joseph Millson as Willmore has the lions share of work to do, and did it with panache. He was both convincing, and very funny, as an unrepentant libertine with more than enough charm to be forgiven for his philandering. Gyuri Sarossy was brilliant as Don Pedro too, he certainly got the best underwear. But it was all excellent, honestly, go and see it!


  1. I saw the RSC do it in London way back when with Jeremy Irons and Stephanie Beacham. It was so funny, and Irons was brilliant and handsome. This also sounds a winning performance.

    1. Jeremy Irons and Stephanie Beacham are my idea of dream casting; if only the production had been filmed the way the Globe Theatre has filmed such productions as Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Henry IV part one and two, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter's Tale, Two Gentlemen of Verona and the Duchess of Malfi - all these and others are available on DVD.
      They were filmed before a live audience; the camera work is never intrusive; the close-ups never get in the way of the spoken text.
      I have just watched the DVD of The Man Who Knew Infinity with Jeremy Irons playing G.H. Hardy, the fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who helped promote the career of Srinavasa Ramanujan, the intuitive genius of pure mathematics.
      C.P. Snow wrote a perceptive memoir of his friend Hardy as a preface to Hardy's short autobiography or apologia. I enjoyed the Jeremy Irons performance so much that I watched the DVD of Graham Swift's Waterland the following evening; Irons is quite magnetic; he really understands Swift's troubled character, a history teacher who grew up in the Fens, struggles with his own ghosts and emigrates to the United States with his distrait wife.
      Blood's a rover, as the old song goes. And I think the Roving (not to say Desperate) Reader will enjoy a bit of light research before starting Aphra Benn's little-read but enjoyable text.
      Michelle Roberts has an online review of Germaine Greer's Slipshod Sybils, a book which covers such assorted figures as Aphra Benn and Christine Rossetti. (I have two biographies of Rossetti; her life is haunting; the biographies also provide a fascinating guide to 19th Century London at the time of the pre-Raphaelites.)
      I must look and see if A.S. Byatt has written on Aphra Benn; her published essays and online interviews make the very best reading; I can see A.S. Byatt must have been an invaluable teacher during her years in Academe.
      The historical approach is always useful.
      A friend's daughter was struggling with Paradise Lost so I gave her the standard work on Milton by C.S. Lewis as well as an old book of essays by such critics as John Wain and Frank Kermode. It was a pleasure to introduce her to F.R. Leavis who wrote with steely-eyed precision on Milton, Bunyan, Eliot and Lawrence.
      She found the Milton biographies by A.N. Wilson and Richard Bradford really helpful - the latter is published by Hesperus in a durable little paperback.
      Peter Ackroyd's novel, Milton in America, had her enthralled. 'Supposing the blind Milton really had visited America?' she said.
      I am sure Mr Ackroyd could do the same for Aphra Benn. Or perhaps we could have a series of linked stories about Aphra Benn, with contributions from Peter Ackroyd as well as Michelle Roberts, A.S. Byatt, Rose Tremain etc.
      Many years ago I read C.V. Wedgwood's essay on the cavalier poets. It coloured the way I now read Andrew Marvell and the metaphysicals. I can almost hear Dame Veronica reading Marvell's line 'I saw Eternity the other night.'
      Where are any of us without teachers and imaginative writers? Or the living theatre?
      J. Haggerty.

    2. Erratum. 'Twas Henry Vaughan and not Mr Marvell who saw Eternity the other night. I was getting mixed up with Marvell's... 'But at my back I always hear/ Time's winged chariot hurrying near;/ And yonder all before us lie/ Deserts of vast eternity.'
      I can hear Jeremy Irons reading the lines as nobody else quite can. The metaphysical poets are a useful corrective to the atheism of Mr Dawkins.
      Jack H.

  2. I imagine Stephanie Beecham would have been great, was she Angellica? And Jeremy Irons too. If you get the chance see this production, it was tremendous fun.