The Rover (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre
August 19 – September 4
2022 represents Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s 21st year and the atmosphere of their production of prolific playwright Aphra Behn’s “The Rover” is appropriately carnival-like. A band of Cavaliers, including Colonel Belvile (Milan Bjelajac) and Captain Willmore (Dudley Powell as the reckless and promiscuous cavalier nicknamed the Rover), travel to foreign climes during carnival season. Belvile is in search of love, while Willmore is after a good time.
While the show is not the company’s usual Shakespearean play, it is easy to appreciate its choice given the commonalities across the two playwright’s works. The language choices and characters of the Bard’s Italian plays make appearance, disguise also features within Aphra’s work, and there are also strong female characters keen to break free of the social constraints placed upon them (Behn was England’s first female professional playwright). Director Rebecca Murphy respectfully leans into the commonalities, and celebrates the liberal feminism at the core of the play’s commentary upon the position of women, most obviously through the noble but feisty wildcat Hellena (Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn) who decries marriage when her brother Don Pedro (Rob Pensalfini) encourages her to become a nun, determining instead to venture out into the Carnvial and fall in love.
There are many parallels between “The Rover” and “Much Ado About Nothing” in particular, not just through this, but also Blunt and Frederick ironic mockery of Belvile for being a lost English boy of 30. Indeed, from when things open to a sad English cavalier Belvile being teased by gentlemen Blunt (Angus Thorburn) and Frederick (Willem Whitfield) for his melancholy, uncalled for during carnival time, the male and female attitudes towards love are depicted as different; while men fearfully mock the emotion, women are seeking it out. Contrast is also evidence in the sister Florinda (Emily Potts) and Hellena as they throw themselves into the chaotic streets of Naples during Carnival, one in search of her forbidden true love, the other in search of a good time. While both are seeking control over their own lives, the ladylike and more modest Florinda desires to follow her heart in its love for the gentleman Belvile, which is in contrast to their brother Don Pedro, who views the purpose of marriage as to gain status, not to mention the arrangement for her to marry the wealth but elderly Don Vincentio.
While its intricate plot makes the play a long one, things move a swift comic pace with snappy dialogue and physical storytelling meaning that there is always plenty to look at and listen to within its cosmopolitan city’s setting. Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn’s design of lush, layered costumes add to the story’s initial folly, especially around the appearance vs reality appearance of masks and disguises. And jolly musical accompaniment includes original compositions by Liliana Macarone and Rob Pensalfini, entertaining the audience pre-show and at interval, such has become the typical treat of QSE shows.
The classic restoration comedy is also brought to raucous life a host of colourful characters. Of particular note in performance, Fitzgerald-Quinn layers Helena’s feistiness, making her at-once enticed by Willmore’s witty charm and unafraid of his flirtatious ways, outlining how their relationship is to unfold. Similarly, Powell gives the titular Captain a multi-faceted realisation, joyous at finding himself in Naples for the business of love and mirth, as a melancholy dog in woo of Helena and lovesick in admiration of her eyes, face, mouth, teeth… and wit, yet also with a dark side that sees him easy to anger and draw his sword upon other men, and attack Florinda.
Thorburn is another standout as the substantial fool out of his depth in apparent love, Blunt. The selfish idiot, appropriately mocked and disdained by his friends, and valued only for his money, believes himself to be in love with scheming lady-of-the-night Lucetta (Julie Martin), thinking her to be a woman of quality. The scene in which he is tricked into her bedroom and out of his clothes and money is perfectly pitched to glide the audience into interval ahead of the confronting components of Act Two, and Thorburn’s give to the character of some moments of vulnerability, endears him to the audience all the more.
It is a shame that “The Rover” is so rarely performed. Behn’s most successful (and at-the-time scandalous) play may be a dark one of mixed themes, but it effectively features strong female characters, empowered with some control. It also has some very funny moments in its witty writing and performances, making it worth a visit for something Shakespeare-ish but not really so.
Photos c/o – Benjamin Printable Photography