The Rover: sponsored by Ann Summers. Is it not? Whoops. Well, it most definitely should be with this X-rated production from Artluxe.
Artluxe embraces the bawdiness of the Restoration era, but goes a step further for a twenty-first century audience. Adapted by Amy Hodge, the bare essentials are the same as Aphra Behn’s original text, but creative license is exploited to the nth degree for its promenade style. On one hand, it may be useful to read The Rover before going in, as the plot is characteristically long winded: the Cavaliers pursue the virtuous ladies, who seek to avoid the authority of their brother and sexual conquest by Don Antonio. In the midst of this, the men are distracted by the famously beautiful prostitute Angelica who is being auctioned off for a month to the highest bidder. On the other hand, Hodge’s version has the ability to stand alone. Like Behn’s script, this production focuses upon the women’s perspective, considering their beauty as both a weapon and a weakness. Hodge uses modern turns of phrases which don’t have the richness of Behn’s language, but then this production goes beyond Behn’s play.
Featured in the programme is the Earl of Rochester’s poem Signor Dildo, hence several unexpected encounters with what lies in the back room of Ann Summers. It’s said the Restoration character of the rake is based upon the Earl, an infamous philanderer. Artluxe takes this image to symbolise something which replaces men thereby empowering women. Expanding upon this, Artluxe’s extremely lavish production contemplates beauty as the shallow driving force behind sex. This approach is a cross between theatre and a live art instillation. This site-specific company’s best asset is Hampton Court Palace. Talking of beauty, you can’t help but be drawn away from the action to admire your surroundings, your palace tour feels wonderfully authentic as the actors bring the period to life. Then there are the wigs and costumes (Natasha Mackmurdie and Victoria Sparrow), gorgeous and stylised with splashes of colour, or an extra decoration or torn sleeve which upsets the whole, and lends this production a contemporary twist. During Act Three (which has been titled, ‘The Sale of Beauty’), scantily clad cast members are placed upon platforms for the audience to ogle. This interpretation considers the treatment of women and men as objects, and reflects that this performance complements the palace’s exhibition The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned, which displays paintings of Charles II’s mistresses.
The cast excel as flirts; the audience interaction is surprising and confident so each journey is made individual. In Act Two, or ‘The Carnival’, you are offered prostitutes which you can pay for with the crowns you’re given at the beginning. Lock eyes with a rake and they’ll take your hand, lead you away and come close enough to kiss you; beyond the inevitable giggles, this is successful because the cast are so charismatic. Daniel Weyman’s Willmore is compelling to watch and David Ricardo-Pearce is absolutely charming as Bellville. The ladies, too, are feisty; Chloe Pirrie is strong and Beatriz Romilly a perfectly girlish coquette, whose heightened style fits the form. These couples lead the rest, but every actor is on top of their game. The way Paul Albertson looks at you is appropriately snooty for Don Antonio, and an amusing contrast for Carl Prekopp’s wet Don Pedro. Nadia Cameron-Blakey seems to quell the passion she could show, for fear she would wrinkle what’s supposed to be the most beautiful face in the room.
Raquel Meseguer’s choreography is ethereal, but Angelica’s writhing in the bedroom scene grows tiresome and, with a production that goes as far as it does, the scene would have more impact if portrayed realistically rather than abstractly. As you travel from one space to another, you come across one of the very skilled dancers or something altogether stranger. Although you’re encouraged to look at them like further exhibitions, you can’t hide that they’re fillers as the audience travel from A to B. They extend the ideas of this production, rather than contribute something new.
Logistically, this promenade performance is well organised, except during the sword fight which takes place in too long a room to follow. Perhaps it crams too much in to make their quickly and inventively established point, but overall, Artluxe shows how a promenade show should be done in this aesthetically sexy and sumptuous production.
The Rover is playing at Hampton Court Palace until 8 July. For more information and tickets see The Hampton Court Palace website. Photo by Bill Knight.