Review: The RSC’s The Rover

I went to see The Rover at the RSC recently. I refuse to put a spoiler alert, since the script has been in circulation for 340 years. 

Let me first say: I loved it, start to finish. I came out of it weary and aching at the jaw from laughing and smiling without stop for so long. If not for the much-needed interlude, my cheeks would have cramped before the end and forced me to leave the theatre. I’d slept three hours the night before, so I expected the dark, warm theatre to lull me to sleep, but this play didn’t give me a moment to snooze. I will spend most of this review talking about all the specific things that worked so well. Luckily, I did find one nit to pick, so I can save face and preserve my reputation as a resolute contrarian at the end.

First off, the acting was great. I’m actually conflicted as to which actor I liked most, between Joseph Millson’s Rover and Faye Castelow’s Hellena. Joseph Millson was incredible: the Rover is not a complex character, he’s an ideal, a hyperbole. Without being predictable, he fit perfectly with my idea of the character, and by the laughs he managed to pull from the audience, I wasn’t alone. His every move seems obvious, inevitable the moment after it happens, and it makes him an incredibly magnetic lead to the play. The fabulous hair and attire helps, of course. He would have carried the whole play by himself, but luckily, he didn’t need to. Faye Castelow’s impish, witty Hellena is a much-needed countermeasure to our outrageous captain. In their shared scenes, she matches him blow for blow, perfectly pulling off the playwright’s romantic (and somewhat unrealistic) ideal of a virginal young noblewoman taming a lecherous sea captain. Although the play sets up the traditional romantic duet, Belvile and Florinda, the eponymous rogue and his fearless wife-to-be quickly steal the limelight. After seeing this production, it’s hard to imagine a better pair than Joseph Millson and Faye Castelow.

The rest of the cast is just as inspired. Alexandra Gilbreath is older than I had imagined Angellica (as she is the great beauty of her brothel), but she quickly convinced me that an experienced hand in the role only benefits the character. I was utterly sympathetic to Angellica’s plight, and her somewhat tragic ending tempers the traditional comedy ending of everyone getting married. She was definitely one of the emotive highlights of the play. Gyuri Sarossy as Don Pedro makes a wonderful entrance in his underwear (a recurring costume for him), and is suitably passionate and over the top for the rest of the play. The traditional couple of Belvile and Florinda is convincingly in love; Patrick Robinson and Frances McNamee fit the roles well.

What most surprised me, not having read the play before going to see it, was how radical it is, even for today. The Rover is a charismatic rogue, and the audience is on his side from the moment he (literally) swings onto the stage. He’s a terrible lecher, charming, lying and pleading his way into women’s arms, yet it’s hilarious and playful. Then, a bit more than halfway through the play, Florinda is waiting in her back garden, having left the door open for her lover to come take her away. A completely drunk Rover stumbles through the gates and, with hilarious drunk charm, tries to rape her. This is the power of good entertainment to rephrase issues in incredibly impactful ways. We assume the best of those we like, and likeable as the Rover is, there’s a moment of disbelief. If you were actually asked to soberly consider the question: “could the immoral captain rape a woman?”, it would be obvious, but after an hour and some of laughing at his antics with women, there’s this assumption that it’s all fun and games. It’s a reminder that human horrors wear a friendly face, before and after, and it’s an incredibly nuanced statement. You still love the Rover for being who he is afterwards, but there’s an added awareness of the implications of his character. This is what I mean by “radical”: the play is beautifully, winningly feminist. As with all effective activist narration, this extra dimension only serves to give the characters depth and make the story more absorbing.

There are a few other things that elevate the play from simply good to spectacular. For example, the plight of Ned Blunt, unapologetic Essexer. He is mainly there for comic relief, yet he has a real emotive moment after being robbed by a prostitute and thrown into the sewers, where I felt genuine sympathy for him. He came to the fore once again as the second person to try raping Florinda. This time, I had no sympathy for him, but I wasn’t laughing either. Once again, a character who seemed so harmlessly funny (for other reasons) shows that he isn’t so funny to someone powerless before him. After this, he returns to his original comedic purpose, but those two scenes elevate him from a boring creature made for cheap laughs to a real, affective character.

The only part of the play that didn’t completely convince me was Jamie Wilkes’ Don Antonio. Although he is, in his own way, as over-the-top as his friend Don Pedro, perhaps the play didn’t introduce me to him well. Perhaps he wasn’t in the limelight enough. Either way, the character didn’t feel real to me, and seemed more like a convenient plot device at several crucial junctions of the story.

Finally, I loved the music. The band is very involved with the show, dancing on stage and filling any empty spaces with beautiful sound. Both singers were very good, and it just fit well with everything else, creating a bacchanal setting to the characters’ indiscretions.

It’s still on until the 11th of February, and I strongly recommend that you go see it if you haven’t already.

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