Theatre Review: Belvoir’s The Rover is a rollicking good time (Until 6th August)

If you’re looking for a good time, call Belvoir! The iconic Sydney theatre’s latest production, The Rover, will have you doubling over your doublets with laughter. A delightful classical script, paired with comedically-gifted actors and a theatre company who knows how to have fun, make this show a must-see.

Written in 1677 by Aphra Behn, the first female playwright to earn a living from her craft, The Rover takes its scene in Naples. Sisters Florinda and Hellena are preparing to let their hair down (and their skirts up) at Carnival, a city-wide celebration where the usual social moralities do not apply. Virgins dress as whores, gypsies as nuns, you know the drill – basically everyone has a lot of booze and a lot of sex and there are no consequences.

Throw in their over-protective, stammering brother, an arrogant Spaniard, a beautiful courtesan and a band of swashbuckling Englishmen all bent on finding love (or lovers), and you have the makings of your typical 17th century English comedy. There’s much running about, talk of love and virtue, and plenty of sword-play (both figuratively and literally).

In an interesting twist, director Eamon Flack and dramaturg Charlotte Bradley have elected to open the show with a soliloquy from the author herself. Taken in part from a poem by Behn, the prologue reminds us that women are still not equally represented in the theatre. And while today’s female playwrights perhaps do not suffer the slings and arrows wrought upon Behn by the critics of her age, their works are still perceived as lesser than those of their male peers. It’s a topical, modern touch that subtly sets the scene for the play to come.

As with most contemporary productions of Shakespeare’s comedies, Flack and Bradley have peppered the poetic text with colloquialisms and present-day dialogue. And, as with Shakespeare’s texts, it works, because these are essentially ‘plays for the people’. There are several rib-tickling asides to the audience and a few poignant observations thrown in for good measure. And even though the play runs at just over 3 hours (including interval) these additions are thoroughly welcome and add superbly to the comedy.

Many of these modern discourses are delivered by Belvoir debutante, Megan Wilding, in the dual roles of Moretta and Lucetta. Her face tells a thousand tales, all of them hilarious, and she has a clear skill with comedy.

Similarly amusing, though with a little less subtlety, is Nathan Lovejoy (Don Antonio/Frederick). He is a natural in the boys club, and while his Don Antonio borrows just a bit too much from that other Antonio’s Puss in Boots, he elicits plenty of easy laughs.

Toby Schmitz is very much the man people have come to see, and there are moments of his trademark cheeky brilliance. But in some ways, Schmitz’s performance is almost too nuanced and subtle; it has a tendency to be overshadowed, particularly in the larger group scenes.

As his competing love interests, Taylor Ferguson (Hellena) and Nikki Shiels (Angellica) play at opposite ends of the spectrum. Ferguson works hard but never quite masters the bawdy language and innuendo, and her scenes with Schmitz are not nearly ‘big’ enough. Shiels, on the other hand, is the perfect sultry temptress, relishing the European-ness of the role and employing an over-the-top accent that actually works.

Special mention should go to the other ‘leading man’, Leon Ford (Belville), who achieves that most difficult of tasks – making the straight-man funny. His bobbling lower lip and tear-rimmed eyes extract giggles from even the hardest of hearts.

But ultimately this play belongs to Gareth Davies, who is a scene-stealing comedic genius! Davies has perfectly depicted the bumbling Ned Blunt as a socially awkward, sexually-naïve Englishman. Abroad for the first time in a city bursting with temptation (and booze), Davies is just like that friend we all have and all feel just a little bit sorry for. While we know where his narrative journey will go, Davies still manages to get us to sigh sympathetically for him in the aftermath. A fantastic performance!

Mel Page’s set design employs simple devices to capture the ambiance of an Italian piazza. In the centre of the intimate Belvoir stage is a tiled, square bath, filled to ankle-height with water. It serves as garden fountain, back-alley sewer and even bath-house treat, and is navigated superbly by the director and his cast. The bright, Mediterranean colour scheme is a sound choice, as is the wall to ceiling, black and white image of a delicious Italian beauty. The undersized, fake plants are less enchanting, although no doubt practical given their use later in the piece.

Page also lends her skilled hand to the costuming, which uses a variety of pieces thrown together to give the impression, rather than the accurate representation, of character and time. As the play progresses, the pieces transition from the Restoration-era-esque to 1980s glam. It’s an odd transition – not due to the movement through time, but because the 80s speaks to me of men embracing their feminine sides, rather than women taking ownership of their sexuality, as would be the case with a 60s/70s style wardrobe. It certainly gives the audience something to think about. Although I’m still not sure about the penguin…

The only real criticism with the production values is with the lighting. The play is full of asides, which are theatrically enhanced through the use of a follow-spot. Unfortunately, when the same spotlight is used during one-on-one dialogue, swinging wildly between actors, the effect is distracting (and a little like being on a ship on stormy seas; perhaps this was the point).

If you’ve ever been to Italy during Carnival, you’ll appreciate the heart of this piece. Like the week-long event, The Rover is wild, unruly, deeply rooted in fun and frivolity and sparking with sexual bravado. There is an element of Commedia Del Arte about the piece (no doubt due to its setting) and when this physical, clowning style of performance is embraced the result is very, very funny. This is entertainment, first and foremost, so you are best advised to leave your critical, high-brow, theatre-as-serious-art mind-set at the door. If you do, egad! You’ll have a jolly good time!

The Rover is playing at Belvoir until 6th August. For tickets go here. You can also check out our own Nathan Atkin’s photo gallery from the show here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Wednesday 5th July.

Production photo credit Anna Kucera