Directed by Eamon Flack
Belvoir St Theatre
25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
Season: 1 July – 6 August
As I sat down in the audience for The Rover, I thought that I could be in for a long night - a 3 hour restoration comedy in ye olde English with a bunch of characters I can't remember the names of. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about. The play may be written in 1677, but it is delightfully funny, engaging, and sheds light on pertinent issues about politics of the sexes. Of course, no surprises that Toby Schmitz is brilliant as the Rover, but overall the play was to me a great big pleasant surprise. I had a great time.
We meet two sisters, Hellena (Taylor Ferguson) and Florinda (Elizabeth Nabben). Their brother (Andre de Vanny) wants to send Hellena to a convent and has set up an arranged marriage for Florinda. Both want to explore genuine love and resent the arrangements their brother has made. The Rover (Toby Schmitz) and his pals are out partying for Carnival, a sort of sexually liberated festival that would have been highly risqué in the 1600s and really, remains to be the case today. Hellena and Florinda secretly make their way to Carnival and meet their respective love interests. Florinda is in love with Belvile, wanting him to carry her away to be married. Hellena meets the Rover, intrigued by potential sexual ventures, and he promises to love only her. An incredibly beautiful courtesan is in town, Angellica (Nikki Shiels), and men from all over pay mega bucks to sleep with her. The Rover has little money but is taken aback by her beauty, and because he is just oh so charming he convinces her to not only sleep with him for free, but to pay HIM for them to sleep together. He essentially betrays the trust of both Hellena and Angellica and reaps the consequences he has sown for himself.
Megan Wilding sparkles with charisma as both Angellica's witty maidservant Moretta and as the beguiling Lucetta who cons Blunt with her wily ways. She causes a ruckus of laughter throughout the audience in virtually every scene that she's in, particularly when making a pointed comment about being the only black person in the cast. Gareth Davies plays Blunt with self-deprecation and a great willingness to give himself to the show for an enhanced comedic touch. He develops a distinct persona that garners audience sympathy as the show progresses, he really takes us on a meaningful journey. Kiruna Stamell makes her mark playing Callis and multiple other supporting roles with flair and good humour. Nikki Shiels is appropriately rapturous as Angellica, wielding impressive power over the men with whom she interacts. Taylor Ferguson gives an enlivened performance as Hellena and Nathan Lovejoy is playful and fun in each role he takes on. It's really an excellent cast across the board. Set and costume design by Mel Page is delectable, the action framed by velvet blue curtains, concealing a striking image that sprawls across the back wall of Shiels as Angellica.
The gender politics in this play are fascinating, given that the pertinent issues from 400 years ago still feel highly relevant today. To some extent this is credit to Eamon Flack's contemporary directorial approach, but this can vastly be attributed to Aphra Behn's perceptive writing. If you don't know anything about Behn, give her a google, she's a phenomenal woman. Being the first published female playwright, it's heartening to see that not only is she significant in terms of the milestone, but she's actually a fantastic writer. Schmitz and his clan of boys are charming ratbags, and yet their treatment of women and self-absorption is frequently despicable. The Rover's keenness to deceive and take advantage of two sincere women and later attempt to rape Florinda when he drunkenly mistakes her for a whore speaks volumes as to some men's valuing and treatment of women. Of course, it's not only the male characters that are deceptive. The seductive Lucetta cons average-Joe Blunt with cruelty and humiliation - however notably she is able to do so due to Blunt's hubris, the pervasive notion that some men hold that he is sufficiently attractive that any woman should fall at his feet. This is relevant in an age of unsolicited dick pics and frequent street harassment. Furthermore, Gareth Davies explores an underlying sinister side to Blunt as his reaction to the conning is to lash out against another woman in sexual violence. Behn's observation here is terrifyingly potent.
Behn's play is rich and Flack's production is nuanced, smashingly funny and compelling. I am so glad that Belvoir has decided to stage this play. Flack has cast the show excellently, including all different types of people that bring varying qualities to the show. Audiences love to see more than just one 'type' of actor on the stage! We love to see a spectrum of people represented because it's vastly more interesting and akin to real life. I hope this is an encouragement for all theatre companies to genuinely embrace a diverse approach to casting. Schmitz is quite captivating in the eponymous role bringing his natural charm, great vitality and sincere embodiment of a problematic, yet relatable, character to the stage. I had a grand time at The Rover - it far exceeded any expectations I had and had me laughing the whole way through. An old play ripe with contemporary insight and brimming with comedic charm, The Rover is a winner.