Content note: The Rover includes mature themes, including sexual assault and simulated violence.
Mischief, masks, and mistaken identities abound in Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover (or, The Banish’d Cavaliers), directed by Rebecca Murphy. Playing out at the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre, The Rover is funny and full of energy, but also leaves lingering questions as it considers freedom, anonymity, class, and sexual politics.
Playwright Aphra Behn was one of the first English women to earn a living by writing, in addition to working as a spy, breaking cultural barriers and serving as a role model for later generations of female authors. Writing in the century after Shakespeare, Behn’s language and storytelling rhythm are similar, but The Rover feels sharp and surprisingly relevant; this is also attributable to the excellent work of QSE, who always make old works resonate in fresh new ways.
The Rover follows two sisters and a gang of exiled English Cavaliers as they take to the streets of Naples during Carnival, revelling in the anonymity of wearing a mask and the freedom from consequence this provides. Women pursuing their desires and disregarding social norms are at the centre of the work: Florinda seeks to marry for love, not wealth or status; her sister Hellena wants to experience life and love before she is sent to a nunnery; and Angellica Bianca, a famous Spanish courtesan, has come to Naples to charge a high price. The Rover also returns repeatedly to the idea of a person being “of quality”, and treatment of that person being justified accordingly. This includes sex workers, through the character of Angellica as well as the multiple assaults suffered by the disguised Florinda at the hands of the cavaliers.
A cast of twelve performers brought the characters of The Rover to life with energy and conviction. 2022 Associate Artist and former Core Ensemble actor Dudley Powell played a roguish and carefree Willmore alongside Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn’s sharp and witty Hellena. Current QSE Apprentices Emily Potts and Milan Bjelajac played a wide-eyed Florinda and an expressive Belvile, respectively, and Rebekah Schmidt gave a passionate performance as Angellica Bianca, with her final monologue being particularly outstanding. Angus Thorburn played the role of hapless Blunt with excellent physical comedy, but also embraced the character’s darker side – his misdirected vengeance as he attacked the disguised Florinda was unsettling.
The Rover made full use of the stage space and amphitheatre, utilising multiple entry and exit points and minimal set pieces. Between formal duels and impromptu street fights, there was plenty of exciting swordplay, with fight direction by Jason McKell. Music was incorporated into the work, creating a festive atmosphere from the opening scene, and the many-talented cast also performed original songs, composed by Liliana Macarone and Rob Pensalfini, before the performance and during the interval.
Swirling with colour, comedy, and music, Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s The Rover was also thought-provoking and thematically rich as it interrogated freedom, anonymity, gender, and class. Scandalous in the 17th century, the play asks big questions about human nature and society while also telling a lively story of misadventures and mistaken identities.
The Rover will play at the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre, Brisbane City, from 19 August – 4 September 2022.