At the start of Belvoir’s production of The Rover an apparition of its long-deceased playwright, Aphra Behn, appears to the audience with a beer bottle in hand to offer a kind of challenge: watch the play unfold and then just try to deny that it’s at least the equal of any similar comedy in the theatrical canon penned by a man.
It’s the sort of challenge that Behn, the first female playwright to ever make a living from her craft, was consistently throwing forth to audiences in the late 17th century. She’s an extraordinary historical figure in a number of ways, and her plays, which dealt rather openly with sex and other taboo subjects, proved to be incredibly popular during her lifetime.
And the apparition of Behn is right: The Rover is every bit as good and funny as most comedies of the same era, and better than about half of Shakespeare’s comedies — with which it shares certain structural similarities — written just a few decades earlier.
It’s a comedy of mistaken identities and a battle of wills playing out between a group of very badly behaved men and women during a wild carnival in Naples. At the centre is Willmore (Toby Schmitz), a rakish English captain with an insatiable appetite for women, who finds himself torn between the glamorous but brusquely capricious courtesan Angellica Bianca (Nikki Shiels), and the young virginal nun Hellena (Taylor Ferguson), who proves to be his unlikely match in terms of wits.
At the same time, Hellena’s sister Florinda (Elizabeth Nabben) is desperately in love with Belville (Leon Ford), an English colonel and Willmore’s friend. But Florinda’s father and brother both have their own ideas about who she should wed.
The plot soon enough twists and takes on degrees of complexity as the various players live it up while trying to hide their indiscretions. While the gender and sexual politics mightn’t seem progressive by today’s standards, the women on stage all have a great degree of agency and are complex, evolving individuals.
Director Eamon Flack and his flawlessly cast company of actors have found comedy just about everywhere — from the lively rendering of Behn’s text, to the meta-theatrical gags (some brilliant, some a little staid and obvious) and exceptional physical comedy (movement director Scott Witt).
Steve Toulmin’s sound design embraces the carnival spirit, while designer Mel Page has created a very witty visual world within which everything can unfold, complete with a small bath in the centre of the stage, affording plenty of opportunities for funny business.
Toby Schmitz is right in his element as Willmore — treading the line between loathsome and loveable with great ease.
The two women he finds himself drawn to are both superb. Nikki Shiels gives a boldly exaggerated performance as Angellica, drawing on the performances of Italian screen goddesses of the 1950s and ’60s and femme fatales of the same era. Taylor Ferguson brings a gutsy defiance to Hellena — who it’s clear from the start is a lady who will probably never be a nun.
Leon Ford and Elizabeth Nabben both give the production a little bit of grounding as the closest thing it has to “straight” characters.
There’s an unruliness to the production and its focus constantly shifts in an almost dizzying fashion. But that’s part of the production’s charm — it’s difficult to know exactly whose hands the story is in at any one point. Is it being driven by the obvious protagonists, or by the more peripheral characters?
It’s those peripheral characters that really steal the show, particularly Gareth Davies, who excels in sad clown mode, and Megan Wilding, who is wonderful in dual roles, both as the seductive “jilting wench” Lucetta and as Angellica’s assistant of sorts Moretta, who is able to see the foibles of every other character for exactly what they are. Her sense of comedy is first-rate, particularly when she addresses the audience directly. Kiruna Stamell, Andre de Vanny and Nathan Lovejoy make up the rest of the cast.
There have obviously been quite liberal edits made to the text, and I’d argue that there’s plenty more room to trim. As it currently stands, the play runs for just shy of three hours, and it does lose a little bit of steam in the second act as it moves towards its conclusion.
But that’s a small complaint in a production that’s a generously entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking piece of theatre.