Photos by Ellie Kurttz © RSC
Directed by Loveday Ingram, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of The Rover embraced the play’s raucous carnival setting. A live band playing salsa, samba and Latin American music created a fiesta atmosphere, and provided an exuberant backdrop to the comedy written by Aphra Behn as a celebration of the erotically charged early Restoration period.
These photographs show Faye Castelow as Hellena and Joseph Millson as Willmore; the company of The Rover; and Alexandra Gilbreath as Angellica Bianca and Millson as Willmore.
The Restoration heralded the end of the austerity endured in England under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) and the Puritan elite during the Interregnum (‘between reigns’) (1649–1660). Not only were the commercial playhouses reopened, but for the first time in the history of English theatre women were permitted to appear on stage.
The introduction of professional actresses was a novelty, and playwrights capitalised on the excitement and sexual tension felt by their audiences by writing roles for their leading women that often included a cross-dressing or ‘breeches part’. Breeches in the Restoration period were a type of close-fitting short trouser usually worn by men, and which, when worn by a woman, revealed the shape of her legs. This was extremely provocative in the 17th century as women’s legs were almost always hidden by their clothing.
Hellena is shown here in Act 4, Scene 2, disguised as a young man in the ‘breeches part’ tradition. Despite following misogynistic convention, Behn elevated Hellena’s character from being merely an object of male desire (Willmore’s within the play, and the audience's without) by giving her wit, sophistication and the intellect to play the male cavaliers at their own game.