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A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
As its subtitle ‘The Banish’d Cavaliers’ suggests, the play revolves around a group of Royalist exiles from Puritan England, who are living it up in the decadent carnival city of Naples, where the heated atmosphere leads to plenty of both amorous and belligerent encounters. Naval captain Willmore (the ‘Rover’ of the title) is determined to sow as many wild oats as possible among the local courtesans, but has perhaps met his match in Hellena, a lady disguised as a gypsy who wants to escape life in a convent. His friend Colonel Belville is faithfully in love with Hellena’s sister Florinda, but her brother has wants her to wed a Spanish nobleman. Meanwhile, the hapless Blunt mistakes a prostitute’s simulation for true romance.
Behn’s past experience in espionage is perfect for this convoluted tale of deception and disguise, where people live on their wits and nobody can be trusted. In this male-dominated society, in which arranged marriage is another form of prostitution and casual sex can easily turn into rape, women have to be strong to have any control over their own lives, and in this play they show real self-empowerment. And there is plenty of scope here for role-playing in the carnivalesque mask-wearing and sexual games, intertwined with bouts of phallic swordsmanship.
Unfortunately Natalie York’s production for the newish Pell Mell Theatre Company fails to tap into this highly charged, ambivalently erotic ambience. There is not much sense of setting with a bare stage strewn with hay (like a barn suggesting animalistic impulses?) and a confusing use of space giving little idea of where we are in the action. There is some choreographed movement in lurid red lighting, as well as lively fight scenes, but we never feel seduced by Neapolitan intrigue and passion.
The inexperienced cast have plenty of youthful zest but seem uncomfortable with the period language, so that the witty dialogue rarely makes the impact it should, like a blunted rapier. Felix Trench is insufficiently charismatic as the devil-may-care Willmore (perhaps modelled on the notorious poet and rake, the Earl of Rochester) and Leo Marcus Wan is a rather bland Belville, though Matt Gibbs’s foppish Blunt is quite amusing. Lucy Wray is a mischievous Hellena. Georgina Morrell the headstrong Florinda and Camilla Whitehill plays the fiery courtesan Angellica,a part originally played by the king’s mistress Nell Gwyn.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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