Review by Bradley Chapman
Superficially, it would be easy for a reviewer in 2022 to compare Aphra Behn’s The Rover with some of the earlier work of Shakespeare. They both drew on similar tropes to construct their comedies, they both wrote of the interplay between love and deception, and of course they both wrote to a rather rigid poetic metre. But any further comparison seems unfair on Behn. Shakespeare, of course, invented none of that. And although The Rover was first staged a mere 60 years after Shakespeare’s death, these two seminal wordsmiths were worlds apart.
To appreciate those delicate differences, one must consider the contexts in which these two masters wove their works. Shakespeare, of course, began his career in the robust Elizabethan era. He and his contemporaries delivered theatre for the masses that was rough and bawdy. Delight and terror shook the stages of London. For the first time in English history, theatre became a serious industry. When James I ascended the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, this theatrical frenzy had not ebbed… but it was changing. The raucous comedies of the Elizabethan era gave way to the more melancholy and dire examination of the human condition that James and his audiences craved. The tone shifted, and Shakespeare’s Jacobean works – Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and many others, echoed this.
This great theatrical renaissance, however, was not to last. After a tyrannical king, three civil wars, a parliamentary purge, a would-be genocide and a regicidal execution, England fell under the strict, puritanical rule of the self-appointed Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. The puritan-led parliament ordered the closure of all theatres in 1642, naming them as places that bred obscenity and immorality.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the newly crowned Charles II, who history remembers fondly as ‘the merry monarch’, ushered in a new theatrical era of hedonism and sexuality: the restoration. Charles personally encouraged playwrights to be explicit and immoral, and most importantly, he welcomed England’s first female actors and playwrights into this world that had been strictly reserved for men. Thus, Aphra Behn’s pivotal work was born.
And so it is unfair to simply draw similarities to Shakespeare and his contemporaries and end the discussion at that. To do so would do a disservice to Behn herself, and indeed to the director of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s recent production of The Rover, Rebecca Murphy, who in approaching this text could not, and did not, rest on the laurels of Shakespeare to get by. Rather, Murphy has approached this text as one that is influential and unique in its own right. This approach is clear in this expertly realised production.
A plot summary of The Rover really cannot be achieved in a few words: the play is jam-packed with action, characters and subplots. At its core, it is the story of two sisters who, in an attempt to avoid the lives chosen for them by their father and brother, disguise themselves and sneak out into the Neapolitan Carnival to sculpt the lives they dream about. Chaos, as one might expect, ensues.
Murphy appears to have approached The Rover through a pro-feminist lens (something often hard to do with Shakespeare, who very rarely had his female characters interact with one another). All the women in this work are beautifully realised. Murphy has imbued them with a power and weight that transcends their sometimes admittedly anti-feminist actions. The audience is left feeling that they are free agents of their own destiny, even if we disagree with the destiny they choose.
This is apparent from the very first scene, in which we meet sisters Hellena and Florinda, played by the phenomenally talented Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn and Emily Potts, respectively. It is immediately clear that Hellena is no typical heroine, thanks to the gravitas of Fitzgerald-Quinn’s performance. Equally, Potts gives us a Florinda who is the perfect foil to her sister – she wants, but is denied, the classic romantic storyline. The dichotomy between these two performers is enchanting, and from here on in, any scene in which they interact is a true theatrical treat.
In fact, the performances that comprise this QSE production are all roundly perfect. I spent too much time prattling on about 17th Century English history to discuss them all, but it is worth saying that there is no weak link in this cast. Every performer is a master of the craft.
Dudley Powell, who plays the titular Rover, is a perfect example of this. Although there is likely no role that this powerhouse performer wouldn’t nail, he feels particularly at home in this piece. Powell is gripping as an actor and performs the role with so much charm that one may almost be inclined to overlook some of the calculating Rover’s more grotesque actions and remarks. Almost.
Angus Thorburn faces another of the great challenges for actors in this text. As the foppish Ned Blunt, he remains a steadfast comic relief for the entirety of the first act. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Thorburn in this role – the actor and the part are perfectly intertwined, and he conducts the laughter of the audience through his mastery of the language and his own occasional ad-libs, which all land with aplomb. In the second act his character takes a darker turn, and Thorburn manages this shift with disconcerting sincerity.
Another gem in the cast is Julie Martin. With less stage time than most of the other performers, Martin was perhaps even more driven to make the role of the manipulative Lucetta one that would last in the minds of the audience long after the final bow. A perfect blend of comedy and cynicism, she makes every moment work on multiple levels.
Rebekah Schmidt’s performance of the enigmatic courtesan Angellica is a true highlight. Schmidt’s Angellica is full of depth: playful but sensitive; prideful but honest; vengeful but very, very real. It’s difficult to put this masterful performance into words.
Of course, everyone else is excellent too: Willem Whitfield’s Frederick is a suitable offsider to Powell’s roguish Willmore and Milan Bjelajac’s Belvile brings much needed levity to them both. Rob Pensalfini relishes each moment as the aggressive Don Pedro and Liliana Macarone is a non-stop delight as Moretta, Angellica’s long-suffering servant.
The director and her cast are ably supported by a team that has perfected the minimalist use of the open-air performance space. QSE are masters of mood, and continue to demonstrate that it is through talent and ingenuity, not expensive effects, which this can be achieved. B’Ellana Hill’s stunning lighting design, and fight choreography by Jason McKell, work together to realise this.
It would also be remiss not to mention the live music, directed by cast member Macarone and composed by her and co-performer Pensalfini. The band, made up entirely of cast members, create a perfect ambience for the dramatic action.
Unfortunately, the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of The Rover has seen its last performance, but hopefully it will stand as a reminder of the excellence of this fantastic company. QSE continues to both honour and reinvent these classics, and their next project, whatever it may be, will certainly be worth your patronage.