“I first found John Wilmot, on whom Willmore, the character I’m playing in The Rover, is based, in Graham Greene’s book Lord Rochester’s Monkey. It’s a ripping account of the man, who was a phenomenally clever and dangerous liver of life. A friend of the King, locked in the tower for kidnapping his future wife, a theatre rat, a brave soldier, and such a committed sack artist that he died from it. The title of the book references Rochester’s scandalous decision to have his portrait painted with a monkey. Even today it’s a relevant punky idea, that anti-establishment-from-within fire. I played Rochester in a NIDA production of The Libertine, and got my teeth into my first rake. I had a blast.
I first read The Rover prepping for that production. Rochester was lampooned and homaged often, during and after his time, but Aphra Behn has seized intelligently on the horror and the allure of a talented Cavalier, a debauched wit, a romantic nihilist, and run with the idea in her own soldier’s romp. She understood that a lasting rake must have spikes as well as charm, a complex cocktail for writer, actor, director and audience to navigate. This insight ricochets around the play, in all the moment to moment human contradictions. I feel a great fortune in being able to keep unlocking this man, in a new way, with a dram more wisdom in my system.
Great plays contain lots of ideas that refract into the uncountable. The Rover, at first glimpse set in a structure we think we recognise – men and women in an idyll chasing each other on and off stage – is no exception. When one asks how Behn’s gender influenced or aided her writing, the answers are numerous and fascinating.
Just as rich for me is the fact that she had a previous, meaningful job in espionage. The world of society spymasters and agents in the field requires a wise observer of personality, a person who can hobnob with all sorts, and who can perceive our masks and all the shades of grey behind them. There is darkness too, in the hedonism of soldiers, and in the precarious time when The Rover was written. A perilous period when men of all classes and intellects got drunk and pulled out their swords in the street. Behn was front row to that darkness and danger; she took detailed notes, and it’s in the DNA of what is a bracingly godless play.
The battle of the sexes will always be modern; it’s woven into drama, everything from the Greeks to Belvoir’s 2017 season. The Rover has shot like a comet through time because of Behn’s take on it.”
The Rover plays at Belvoir 1 July – 6 August. For more information and to book tickets, head here.