The Rover, Hampton Court Palace, 5 July 2012
This promenade production by Artluxe of Aphra Behn’s most famous play accompanied an art exhibition at Hampton Court Palace.
Entitled The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned, the exhibition explored “the meaning of beauty, and the lives and loves of the courtesans and libertines who lived and died in the Stuart Court.”
Visitors could view paintings illustrating that louche world and also be a part of a promenade performance that dramatised precisely the kind of libertine hi-jinks indulged in by the subjects of the portraits. And this in the very location they had taken place.
The performance lasted roughly one and a half hours with no interval.
The language was modernised to so that the dialogue was not punctuated by multiple instances of unfamiliar oaths such as “hark’ee” and “’adsheartlikins”. But on occasion the updated language was inelegant.
Blunt, Frederick, Valeria and a host of other minor characters were cut, as were entire subplots, so that the play focused on the trajectory of the principal characters.
The remainder was intelligently adapted.
First performed in 1677, The Rover was Aphra Behn’s reworking of the play Thomaso by Thomas Killigrew, published in 1664. In her introduction to the Oxford Classics edition of The Rover, Jane Spencer points out that Aphra Behn took the main female characters in Killigrew’s play and empowered them. The character of Hellena was the one most changed from the source play: “Behn makes her outspoken and demanding”.
This production continued what Behn had begun by making Hellena the play’s central character and rendering her “outspoken and demanding” by 21st century standards. Her journey through the play culminated in a significantly reworked ending that created an entirely new narrative. However, the kernel of this new version was already present in Behn’s play in Hellena’s revulsion at the idea of marrying for money.
Passing into the Base Court, the audience were told by way of an apparent compliment, that they were either “beautiful” or “wild”. These were two of the three categories from title of the associated art exhibition and were used to divide the audience into two groups that were led separately through the performance to ease congestion in the small rooms and narrow passages.
The first location was the Wolsey Closet where we were introduced to sisters Hellena (Beatriz Romilly) and Florinda (Chloe Pirrie) watching the preparations for the carnival. The action was more or less that of the first scene of The Rover, but with the emphasis on Hellena’s desire for sexual adventure.
The dialogue was changed to include the phrase “sexually desirable”, which was a paraphrase of a list of Hellena’s self-ascribed qualities in the original. As she said this, she touched herself alluringly to emphasise her desirability. However, the use of the phrase “stark naked” seemed out of place.
This early emphasis on Hellena being, as they say, “well up for it”, set the tone for the heavily reworked ending. The first scene engendered a real sense of her insurgent presence.
Their brother, Don Pedro (Carl Prekopp), arranged for Hellena to be admitted to a nunnery and Florinda to be married off to the wealthy Antonio (Paul Albertson), leaving the pair hoping for a brief escape from their impending destinies in the carnival. They agreed to go there in disguise, with Florinda hoping to meet her true love Belvile, and Hellena hoping to have some fun.
We moved out of the gallery and onto an adjacent stairwell to see the melancholy Belvile (David Ricardo-Pearce) lamenting his enforced separation from Florinda. His friend Willmore (Daniel Weyman), the Rover, was out to seduce as many women as possible. He encouraged Belvile to do the same at the forthcoming carnival.
Walking down another corridor we saw a brief exchange between the courtesan Angellica (Nadia Cameron-Blakey) and her maid Moretta (Clare Perkins) about their plan to auction her off for 1000 crowns at the Sale of Beauty.
We were escorted out into a cloister by the Fountain Courtyard where a carnival was in progress. The production programme contained two reproduction coins which could be exchanged for the services on offer, which included fortune telling and whoring.
After a few minutes of soaking up the carnival atmosphere, we saw Hellena and Florinda meet with Belvile and Willmore on the courtyard lawn. Florinda was in disguise and flirted with Belvile who did not recognise her until she revealed her identity. They arranged to elope later. Hellena’s encounter with Willmore led to them fixing an assignation. Meanwhile in the arcade, Angellica walked around silently.
Because the audience was kept at some distance behind a rope barrier in the cloister, the actors at the centre of the courtyard were miked up and their voices amplified through speakers. However, the connection was patchy so that the dialogue was at times inaudible.
We left the courtyard cloister and on through the building. We ascended some stairs where Florinda and Hellena spoke briefly before entering a series of rooms full of debauched scenes. A burlesque performer known professionally as Miss Sherry Trifle posed in a body suit and gave a sly grin to passers-by. The sound of copulating couples prompted Hellena to ask “Do you think they’re eating?” which could have been knowing sarcasm or unworldly innocence.
The Sale of Beauty was a completely invented episode created by a vast expansion of an idea present in the original play. Whereas in Behn’s work the men gathered outside the house of a single courtesan, Angellica, here an entire palace gallery was given over to the large-scale merchandising of all forms of human pulchritude.
Ushered into the Cartoon Gallery, the highly bemused spectators found themselves confronted by figures dancing slowly on podia ranged along the length of the space: a woman in a short skirt dressed like a schoolgirl; Miss Sherry Trifle again in her near-naked body suit; a man showing off his body; and then a central plinth was occupied by Angellica “the most beautiful woman in the world”.
Angellica said that she would only sell herself for gold. At the bottom of her plinth was a framed photo of herself. The photo was snatched by Willmore, who commented suggestively on the precise use to which he was going to put it. However, this bold gesture provoked the jealous Antonio into a duel with him. This was fought lustily, but Willmore managed to escape from Antonio unharmed and made his way to Angellica’s chamber.
We moved on into the King’s Guard Chamber which had been dressed as a bedroom. Angellica sat on her elegant bed and told Moretta how she had fallen for Willmore. Moretta warned her not to, as love was an impediment to a for-hire courtesan.
Once in her chamber, Willmore lost no time in seducing Angellica. She offered herself to him in love. This resulted in some elegant simulated sex with much thrusting as Willmore forced her down onto the bed. When they were done, Moretta was once again angry at Angellica for falling for him.
We were directed out of the room past yet more debauched scenes, which were presented across several apartments. A man leant into an alcove with his back to us evidently pleasuring himself, in another room a writhing pile of sex dolls created a strange spectacle.
The final scene was played out in the Orangery, which had its shutters closed and was dimly lit. Cushions and mats were laid out so that we could make ourselves comfortable.
Fresh from his conquest of Angellica, Willmore encountered Florinda and tried to rape her. There was a lot of swearing and use of the word ‘fuck’, which needless to say was not in the original play. Florinda was rescued by Belvile and comforted with a rather inelegant: “Florinda, are you okay?” The pair went off to be married. This was a compression and simplification of the intricacies of the original, where the marriage ending came after a disguised Florinda revealed her true identity, saving her from the clutches of several men, some of whom apologised afterwards.
Angellica had pursued Willmore and on finding him, threatened him with a knife instead of the original play’s pistol. Antonio intervened and offered to pay Angellica her required price and took her away. Again this reworked the original in which Willmore was the one who offered to pay her, and Antonio’s intervention did not conclude in an arrangement with Angellica.
But within the framework of this adaptation, the action so far had meant that two of the female characters had been offered a way out of their various plights by men offering love and money.
The concluding sequence saw Hellena appear disguised as a man, something she did in Behn’s play to evade detection.
Willmore referred to her as “my little rover”, a term only used with reference to her in the original play by Blunt, who was cut from this production.
She stripped out of her male disguise, but although abandoning her breeches disguise, she began to adopt breeches behaviour. She told Willmore that she wanted to learn his trade, that of being a ‘rover’ from him. She went on top of him to have employing a rough approximation of the movements that Willmore had used when sleeping with Angellica.
The production synopsis summarised:
And then stealthily emerges our female Rover, Hellena, who will still honour her assignation with Willmore as it serves her ambition. But unlike his previous conquests, Hellena just wants his body. Unlike her female counterparts, her liberty is in sexual fulfilment not commitment.
This was quite a significant rewrite of the original, in which Hellena castigated Willmore’s libertinism and insisted on them getting married first to avoid her being left with an unwanted pregnancy. In that version the only thing Hellena wanted Willmore to teach her was how to “weave incle”.
The performance concluded with the cast singing the song Signor Dildo by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1673) after which the audience was unceremoniously escorted through doors into the garden outside.
Reworked plays can sometimes feel disjointed and divorced from the spirit of the original.
But this production was a straight line extrapolation of Behn’s changes to her source play, which meant that while it was superficially very different, the two works shared a communality of spirit.
However much Aphra Behn might have been flattered by this attention to her play, she would not have been pleased about one aspect of its promotion.
Her name was spelled incorrectly on the cover of the programme. In view of the cover photograph, it is possible that whoever did the proofreading might have been distracted from their task…