“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to…” this writer not having an effing clue what to say; or where to start. I mean, first off: what to title my review? “The quaffing cavalier”? “Cavalier platitudes”? “Sex and the witty”? “Blade stunner”? “The Whores Whisperer…?” Seriously, with something this good, this addictive – Doctor Faustus addictive, indeed… – and yet its polar opposite… – I’ve run out of words before I’ve even begun. And I’ve already seen the damn’ thing twice…!
“What on earth is he talking about? Has he been at the sack again…?” Actually, no. I’m just stunned to blazes by yet another huge dose of it-could-only-be-in-the-Swan perfection: that is, The Rover, or The Banish’d Cavaliers (hence all those awful puns): by Aphra Behn; directed by Loveday Ingram – both of whom are on some stratospheric level of genius where only the likes of Maria Aberg and Erica Whyman float, plotting their next conquests. [In fact, whilst my feet, too, refuse to sink to floor level, can I please suggest an RSC season of Behn plays, directed by such goddesses…? Just a thought. (Of course in the Swan! What were you thinking?!)]
I am told that this is on many times over Christmas – and, on one level, it is the perfect pantomime: especially if you like your Santa all bare-chested and buff, and/or your fairies luscious and lewd. However, underneath all that distracting tinsel, there are some serious – and, it has to be said, gratefully, feminist – messages. (Although the text is not afraid to confront the horrific, deep and murky way women have been treated – by men, of course… – throughout history.) And, yes, this was written in the 70s – the 1670s… – which is why my admiration for Behn is so high.
Yet, even with all that… not one opportunity is missed to drop in big dollops of saucy silliness; with much gurning and ad-libbing from Joseph Millson, in the title role… – sometimes pushing his poor peers to the verge of corpsing: which, of course, just makes the whole thing funnier…! [I do wonder, though how the poor captioner – Ridanne Sheridan – will cope? Perhaps, like Don Quixote, “the whole thing” will have to be reined in…? (Which would be a crying shame.)] But what really makes this production so successful is that the whole shebang is held together with intelligent and mesmerizing directorial, musical and design consistency; superb acting from all involved; and a wonderful golden thread of seventeenth-century genius. There is not one lull; not one dull moment.
All the fuss will undoubtedly be about Millson. He is rather wonderful (as I suspect he knows!); and looks like he’s just hunked off the set of The Musketeers – all overweening leather boots and pants, drop-pearl earring, drop-dead mussed shirt, shining blade, Jesus hair, and audience adoration. [Personally, I think he’s a dead-ringer for El capitán Alatriste… – although this verges towards the Carry On version… – the hero at the centre of my favourite set of historical novels: which also come with large chests(?!) of humour; much frantic (but intensely realistic) buckling of swashes; and swooning, and frequent feisty, upper-handed, women.] Talking of such: here’s my neat(?!) segue to the wonderful, wondrous Faye Castelow – who steals the show, from the Prologue onwards… – for me (and it’s a very close call: with, basically, everyone else on stage coming joint second…) the actor of the night.
If a young poet hit your humour right,
You judge him then out of revenge and spite;
So amongst men there are ridiculous elves,
Who monkeys hate for being too like themselves.
She and Millson are perfectly matched: foils of wit ever drawn; the snickety-snack of badinage morphing into twinkling chemistry and charisma – a quite magical (and immensely entertaining) thing to behold! And then there’s Patrick Robinson… – who your heart goes out to over and over again; and who is as constant as the rising sun; just as warm; just as welcome; and just as awe-inspiring, unique and perfect. If I weren’t swooning over Castelow, Robinson would have to be my object of (platonic) adoration! Mind you: Alexandra Gilbreath is also utterly (Gil)breath-taking: a décolletage worth dying in, for, er, whatever; and a voice more seductive than Eartha Kitt on steroids. You won’t find a quartet more swoonsome within a country mile!
And, yes, the boys appear to be in charge… – but isn’t it funny (in more ways than one) how it’s the girls who – pretty much (and with much prettiness) – end up getting what they want – and/or deserve….?
Frances McNamee (Florinda); Emma Noakes (Valeria); Faye Castelow (Hellena) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC
So… as is rapidly becoming my wont, when encountering such an almost-flawless production – and what an annus mirabilis this has been for such… – I shall just work my way down the company (ahem), praising as I go.
Joe Allen is a captivating Stephano: his heart always in the right place, and never far from the centre of the action – even when in disguise. He may be Don Pedro’s servant: but it is clear from Allen’s actions that this is only in job title… – his affection is for, and his duty to, his lord’s sisters: “Madam, I must leave you; for if my master see me, I shall be hanged for being your conductor.”
Likewise, Sally Bankes, as Callis, the ungovernable sisters’ governor: warm, comforting charm (and a permanent smoulder for Hellena to cry on) evolving into a cocky cocktail of girlish delight – and a passing, withering look that brings the house down! “I have a youthful itch of going myself…” – and, boy, does Bankes scratch the heck out of it!
Ashley Campbell, as Philippo, mixes menace with boyish charm. Flitting lightly on and off stage, he has one of the best lines in the play: “Nay when I saw ’twas a substantial fool, I was mollified; but when you dote upon a serenading coxcomb, upon a face, fine clothes, and a lute, it makes me rage.” Get there early, by the way: as his voice fills the Swan with music (with the wonderful Danusia Samal) well before the house-lights dim – and you may end up held in his strapping arms… – a powerful tenor, with some stunning high notes: he adds atmosphere, throughout, and by the shed-load!
But what to say about Castelow, as Hellena – the most spirited of those sisters? Wonderful in her debut for the RSC, during The Roaring Girls season – particularly in The Witch of Edmonton – here she lights up the stage. A tiny bundle of regulated electricity: her hypnotic eyes glisten and gleam; feelings flash across her face; and, whatever disguise she is in, she becomes it instantly – …and yet you never lose sight of the person behind the mask. This is my kind of ‘acting’ – inhabiting, not playing, a part – almost unbelievable believability. And, of course, however much she is in awe to the eponymous, ranging ‘rover’ – and Millson’s attempts to upstage her (well, upstage everyone, really…) – she is always the one in charge. Just so much talent… – and I can easily imagine her as Rosalind; or Lady Macbeth; Beatrice; or even Cleopatra. (Magical.)
Leander Deeny is also astonishing as Blunt: the typical Restoration comedy ‘gull’; and thus the most foolish of the four Brits – the moneyed sidekick to those cavaliers. Yet he grabs our sympathy right from the get-go, and never lets go. “Now, how like a morris-dancer I am equipped… she has made me as faithless as a physician, as un-charitable as a churchman, and as ill-natured as a poet.” His fallibility is utterly touching; and, at moments, quite moving. We therefore easily forgive his attempt at revenge on “all womankind hereafter!” [Despite – or may be because of – this, I have a problem with the speech impediment his character has been given; and especially the uncomfortable laughter it provokes. With an actor of Deeny’s talent, surely this ‘mocking-the-afflictedness’ is unnecessary? It’s certainly past its sell-by-date; and Deeny gains plenty of laughs above and beyond this annoying running gag, anyway. (This really is my only moan about the production, by the way.) ’Sheartlikins.]
Gilbreath, as high-class, expensive courtesan Angellica Bianca – as you will have guessed – is (when not losing it, as a result of Millson’s japery…) bewitching, ravishing and utterly authoritative. It is hard not to fall for her, er, charms. She switches from temptress, to haughty and vengeful dragoon, to lovelorn nymphet, with consummate(d) ease and emotional veracity. When she speaks – when she moves – it is almost impossible to take your eyes off her: she commands the stage, and everyone around her, with utter conviction. In some ways, she is the heart of the play – as well as at it… – and Gilbreath delivers a tour de force rendition.
There are so many of the cast that we don’t see enough of: just hints of the high levels of talent that always seem to populate the Swan… – Allen is one example (although he does some wonderful guitar juggling); and Chris Jack (thankfully, with a bigger part, in The Two Noble Kinsmen…) another. As “gallant” Sancho, he seems to always appear (and frequently behind a golden mask) just to move other people around, or on or off stage – although he delivers his lines, with that glorious voice, to seductive perfection: especially in the scene where Blunt gets his comedownance (and Jack gets to flex his pecs)!
Similarly, Lena Kaur, as Adriana (a role invented for this production) – …who, heartbreakingly, doesn’t even get anything to say! Utterly enchanting in Two Nobs, here we only really get to see her dance (extremely sensually) and pout (ditto) – …to great effect! (This is a large company, though… – with an equal number of men and women… – and yet everybody counts: the carnival scenes would be so much poorer, otherwise; and surrounding Angellica with such ‘accomplices’ speaks to her power and position in society; as well as her value….)
Patrick Knowles is superb as young Fred (as he was – again – in Kinsmen…). He may be the third cavalier; but he is obviously, at heart, a true “English gentleman” – always trying to do the right thing; and earning a lot of sympathy on the way, as he tries to keep up with his elders. He well deserves to win his girl: although you fear that he may have got more than he bargained for! “So, now do I stand like a dog, and have not a syllable to plead my own cause with….”
Leon Lopez as Biskey, Lucetta’s pimp (and therefore Campbell’s mute counterpart) – and, incidentally, the role Robinson played, thirty years ago, when the Swan opened – has only three mentions in the original text: and yet he haunts the production, always at Angellica’s beck and call; his piercing eyes always threatening, but with a smile to die for!
Allison McKenzie gives her luscious Scots accent a fantastic workout as Sally Bowles-bowler-hatted Moretta, Angellica’s ever-protective “woman” – and with as threatening and controlling a walking stick as you will ever see! Her almost continuous, almost androgynous, shock-of-Pris-golden-spiky-haired presence is both sexy and ominous; and the action pivots around her. Her disdain for Willmore is open, and creatively proclaimed – “He knows himself of old, I believe those breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester.” – McKenzie delivering her lines with chilli-flavoured, tongue-rolling relish. (Crivens!)
Frances McNamee – as one would expect from her delightful performances in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Won – is deliciously skittish and sparkling as sister Florinda, the object of Captain Belvile’s love (and vice versa): a little bossy, perhaps – always “conjuring” people to do this and that… – but intensely charming! (What a coincidence that there are the same number of “cavaliers” as “sisters”. I wonder how that happened?!) Her constancy is constantly challenged: but McNamee demonstrates just how strong the character really is: growing in confidence throughout, and disarming us with that quizzical look and winning smile.
And then there’s yer man Millson, as impudent Captain Willmore – the clue is in the name: he does… more and more, as the tale progresses… – ranging from bonkers to beatific and back with aplomb (in fact, several plombs)! His timing is faultless: every action played to the crowd convincing and calculated… – and yet everything he does flows like the richest Elvis-hipped treacle. Wherever he is on stage, your eyes will be there with him. However he behaves – and he is a scandalous scoundrel with a heart of… something; and eyes and hands that rove as much as he does… – you will forgive him. “Broke my vows! Why, where hast thou lived? Amongst the gods! For I never heard of mortal man That has not broke a thousand vows.” We know we are being played: but such is Millson’s power that we don’t give a fig! He is our master, and we his willing servants in adoration (and, quite possibly, lechery…)! This is a truly fantastic, knock-it-out-of-the-park performance. And he makes it look so darned simple. (Grr.) Yet there are real moments of profundity: where he delivers his lines, his pleads, his remorse, his desires, so clearly, so imploringly, that, for one fraction of a second, you suddenly understand the hard work and skill that lies behind… – but then it vanishes: and all we see is the swaggering, edible chunk of debauched virility, with sorcery in his eyes, and a mojo so magnetic that at least half the audience is leering, er, leaning in towards the stage. (Phwoar.)
Emma Noakes, as the not-quite-as-demure-as-she-first-appears-behind-those-glasses Valeria (the third of those cunning sisters), is a bundle of luminous joy and fizz: relishing every moment: “Well, methinks we have learnt this trade of gipsies as readily as if we had been bred upon the road to Loretto…”. [How do we know that “girls who wear glasses” will always thus turn from quiet and bookish prudes to such animated, arousing vamps…?!] Saucier than ketchup, and twice as tasty, she obviously relishes every single moment; gives her all; and is the life and the soul of the carnival!
And here’s to you, Mr Robinson… – be still, my beating heart… – just perfection as the infatuated, languishing Colonel Belvile: the sensible, noblest cavalier; led by his heart and sense of chivalry – “he’s a cormorant at whore and bacon”, declares Blunt, in anger, badly slandering the man. Again, you see that man, not the actor: so thorough, so secure, his possession of the role. He is the still, moral centre that will not give – no matter what mayhem surrounds him. And if Millson is the wide-ranging rover, then Robinson is the chiselled, wide-eyed, block-of-steel, steady-as-she-goes kernel of conviction. “I thought how right you guessed, all men are in love, or pretend to be so. – Come, let me go; I’m weary of this fooling.” (Glorious!)
I didn’t recognize Samal, at first: so thorough her transformation as Astrea (another cunningly made-up role): prowling the stage with her rich, earthy singing, before the show begins, luring unsuspecting men – last night, with surprisingly little success… – on to the stage for a song and dance. The shy, tragic Jailer’s Daughter, in Two Noble Kinsmen, here she is a delectable temptress, a ravishing heart-breaker: one of the circle of ‘gels’ that surrounds, and guards, Angellica. (Scrumptious.)
Gyuri Sarossy is ridiculously entrancing as blinking idiot, big brother Don Pedro: failing at every attempt to corral his sisters – “…go up to your devotion, you are not designed for the conversation of lovers.” – and yet succeeding in evoking as many laughs as Millson. Everyone knows just how far they can ham things up, and still get away with it – Sarossy and Jamie Wilkes perhaps the masters of this; although Millson isn’t that far behind (because, of course, he’s way out in front…)! He has some phenomenal costumes, too….
Eloise Secker, as Aminta (yup, made-up…), is sexy, glamorous… all the words indeed needed to describe someone firing with both barrels, and covered with colourful tattoos, flouncy skirts, patterned black stockings, etc., etc., etc.. A key part of Angellica’s ensemble of sirens, she dances as if her life depends on it: eyes twinkling dangerously; and with a smile as deadly as any Toledo.
Kellie Shirley, as Lucetta – “Hold, sir, put out the light, it may betray us else.” – luring poor Blunt to certain misery – is another darkly-(un)dressed femme fatale – and it’s no surprise that he, cough, falls for her charms: she lays it on, pitched absolutely perfectly, with a well-controlled trowel!
And, finally, there’s ‘guest star’ Wilkes, as the bare-chested, disarming (and disarmed) Don Antonio: every brief appearance magical, every move knowing and measured… – and usually side-splittingly hilarious! And yet he has nobility at his core – enough to match Robinson’s courtly Belvile… – “My rival, sir, Is one has all the virtues man can boast of.” Sadly – despite his habitual unbuttoned shirt – we do not see enough of him: so savour every luscious moment….
There’s not enough room – now – to go into too much detail about the wonderful roll-call of creatives and musicians (who are nearly always on stage). Lez Brotherston’s set design is fantastical and magical (although I cannot see how it can be disassembled to fit in the Swan’s tiny lift or storage spaces); and the costumes (supervised by goodest witch Irene Bohan) – a mix of denim, suede and leather biker chic and Spanish conquistador – are of a fitting and consistently high quality. Tim Lutkin’s lighting is, er, spot-on perfect. Grant Olding’s Latin-American-flavoured music just raises the production to another level: gloriously catchy – and, combined with Fergus O’Hare’s superb sound, you can feel the South American carnaval sun on your back… – it is almost a character in itself: and a major one at that, guiding us through the various plotlines. (This is how incidental music should be!) The fights – as they always are when Terry King is in charge – are vicious, realistic (with some wonderful swordsmanship), and, where necessary, slapstick – choreography to, ahem, die for! (Talking of which, there are scenes where the movement is so frantic, the stage so fully occupied, that I do not know which book of dark spells Nichola Treherne has referenced: but it is a mighty powerful one!)
Kevin Waterman directs the shoulder-swaying soundtrack, whilst hitting and shaking various things; Adam Cross plays a conscious, mean saxophone; Nick Lean twangs his guitarra with glee; as does Phill Ward (who also hits things); Mat Heighway plucks his imperturbable bass with pizzazz… – but it is Andrew Stone-Fewings who, yet again, manages to (marginally) outshine this phantasmagorical bunch, by blowing his shiny horn with such celebratory attitude that he is my man of the night! (Cool.)
So, to conclude… – phew… – I suppose that if Doctor Faustus was the Swan’s highest-quality unremitting nightmare; then this really is its antithesis – a top-notch, fluorescent, explosive, seductive, delightful daydream of a fantasy. I can think of no stage that consistently (I’m ignoring Two Noble Kinsmen for the moment; until I’ve given it a second chance…) launches dramas at both ends of the emotional spectrum so consistently into the stratosphere. [Talking of which: the view from the front row of Gallery Two – for press night – turned out to be quite amazing: adding a conscious, in-a-theatre-but-still-my-disbelief-is-way-above-the-Avon feel to proceedings; as well as being weirdly comfortable; and proving, yet again, that the brick-lined acoustic needs no further amplification than my normal hearing-aid setting. (Wow.)] This theatre is a place that constantly captures my heart and mind…
Oh… – I’ve just worked out what to call my review…!
O Captain! My Captain!