The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th October, 2016
Loveday Ingram’s exuberant production of Aphra Behn’s raucous comedy is almost a reversal of The Taming of the Shrew, in which a wayward character (here, the titular Rover) is brought to heel by the machinations of another (the wily Hellena). In the Shakespeare, the shrew is completely cowed and rendered submissive; here it is more of a meeting of minds, a matching of appetites. Things are on a more egalitarian footing from the off – in fact, it is the females who rule the roost, in terms of plot devices and spirit.
Joseph Millson is marvellous in the title role. His Willmore is a swaggering braggart with ratty pirate hair and an Adam Ant jacket. He exudes bluster and charm in equal measure. He is outrageous and irresistible. Faye Castelow’s Hellena is adorably lively and witty. As her sister Valeria, Emma Noakes is a livewire, while other sister Florinda (Frances McNamee) is more elegant but none the less funny. Patrick Robinson is suitably noble and upright as good guy Belville, but things take a darker turn when the gauche Blunt (Leander Deeny), gulled by a prostitute, seeks violent revenge on any female who happens across his path. Even in these scenes, Ingram keeps the energy levels high – this is a show performed with unrelenting verve and brio. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves immensely, transmitting that sense of fun to us, the lucky audience.
The carnival atmosphere is propagated and maintained by the superlative music, composed by Grant Olding, and performed live on stage throughout the action. The Latin rhythms are infectious, the Spanish guitar, the muted trumpet – every note is delicious. If the RSC doesn’t release a CD, they’re missing a trick.
A highlight for me is a flamenco-off between Dons Pedro and Antonio (Gyuri Sarossy and Jamie Wilkes, respectively); another is Alexandra Gilbreath’s melodramatic courtesan, holding Willmore at gunpoint – there is a wealth of things to enjoy in all the comings and goings, the disguises, the misunderstandings and the mistaken identities. It’s fast-paced, rowdy, riotous fun, performed with gusto and charisma by a vivacious ensemble. Ultimately, Millson dominates with his colossal presence, but we love him for it and egg him on. Willmore is flawed, at the mercy of his appetites – indeed, the men are victims of their own desires – but Behn celebrates human frailties without moralising. She was way ahead of her time.
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