Playing alongside The Two Noble Kinsmen in the Swan Theatre this season is The Rover: both plays formed part of the Swan’s opening season back in 1986, and have been chosen to be produced once again this year. While The Two Noble Kinsmen shone, The Rover sparkled like the glitter on the masks worn by the revellers in this glorious, buoyant production.
Subtitled The Banished Cavaliers, the play sees Willmore and Belvile, exiled from England, head to warmer climes in search of love and sex. In the original production the setting was implied to be Naples; Loveday Ingram’s production is set in South America, which works wonderfully. The production begins and ends, and is thoroughly peppered with, music, so that if you leave the auditorium without a spring in your step I would be extremely surprised.
Joseph Millson is Willmore, the Rover of the title, who makes no bones about what he is looking for. Millson has tons of charisma and commands the stage: you can’t help liking him even as he lies and dissembles his way through life, becoming entangled with a courtesan, Angellica, and a young woman destined for a convent.
Of his companions, Belvile is looking for a way to marry Florinda despite facing opposition from her brother, while Blunt is a rich young gentleman happy to have escaped the dullness of Essex and hoping to make the most of carnival.
Being written by a woman, it’s unsurprising that The Rover is peopled with strong female characters: three sisters escape their brothers control by disguising themselves and heading out to enjoy Carnival. I particularly liked the clever, witty Helena (Faye Castellow), and her sister Florinda (Frances McNamee).
There were some deeply uncomfortable scenes that reminded me that the play is very much of its time: women were still seen as the possessions of men, and Willmore’s seduction scene of Florinda is basically attempted rape. Again, the unfortunate Florinda almost bears the brunt of Blunt’s rage after he is tricked by a whore. I don’t doubt that Behn was aware of this while writing her play and I sensed some deep ambiguity towards the men in the play.
In general though I have to say that I adored this: funny, clever and entertaining, with mistaken identities, disguises and tricks, not to mention the glorious music and carnival atmosphere which really brightened up a cold November evening.