It is mid 17th century, and a bunch of rowdy English tourists descend upon Naples to partake in the masqueraded festivities of Carnival time. Aphra Behn’s depiction of wild revelry may be restricted by mores of the Restoration era, but its spiritedness is nonetheless unmistakable. In its atmosphere of debauchery, the characters talk of love and marriage, preoccupied with the sport of spouse hunting.
The play is conventional, but as the production’s prologue asserts, we cannot ignore Behn’s position as England’s first woman playwright, or the feminine perspective that her work brings to the stage. Although women are again, and literally, divided into virgins and whores in The Rover, they each act with agency, and their desires are provided due significance. Whether nuns or courtesans, we always know what it is that they want for themselves, and we watch them going about procuring what are essentially self-determined lives.
Director Eamon Flack delivers a thoroughly enjoyable work of high octane comedy, playfully inventive in approach and unabashedly raucous with its expressions. Details can become confusing, as the show’s humour takes first priority, but narratives are of slight importance in a show of this nature. It dazzles and it delights, with Mel Page’s brilliant work as set and costume designer scoring high; the imagery presented by The Rover is deliciously colourful and consistently alluring. Lights by Matt Scott are jaunty and energetic, with the inclusion of a “follow spot” enhancing the vaudeville quality of performances.
It is a remarkable cast, unrelenting with their extraordinary exuberance and skill. Flack showcases each of the player’s idiosyncratic sense of humour, while maintaining a cohesion to the comedy style of his creation. Megan Wilding is a standout in dual roles, seductive as the saucy temptress Lucetta and delightfully foulmouthed as the maid Moretta, yet always irresistibly funny and disarmingly magnetic, no matter the personality we encounter. As the charming cad Willmore, Toby Schmitz is a refreshing presence, theatrical but with a striking spontaneity that introduces a hint of danger, to the inevitable predictability of the story.
American comedian Beth Stelling says, “nothing makes a dick go softer than a funny woman.” The fallacious idea of women being less effective in comedy, still persists, but in The Rover, five comical women and five humorous men demonstrate that the funny bone recognises only talent, unconstrained by notions of gender. From Shakespeare to Gogol, and from Chaplin to Gervais, male geniuses have staked their dominance in the field. Spaces in art, like in commerce and politics, continue to be usurped by the masculine, but feminine retaliation is underway, as it has for generations, in this seemingly unending operation. After all, a woman’s work is never done.