This review first appeared on North West End on 18 July 2020.
Claire Louise Amias’s pair of plays resurrect Aphra Behn from a place of relative obscurity into sharp relief as a chatty, warm, and witty raconteur. Directed by Pradeep Jey and Alex Pearson, they were originally presented at the Tristan Bates Theatre as part of the Women and War Festival and were streamed together as part of the Online Fringe Festival this spring.
Behn is a complex and fascinating character from the Stuart era. Born in Kent, she worked as a spy in Antwerp, had a brief marriage to a Dutch merchant, and was the first female playwright to make a living from her work. Played by Amias, she is presented as a historical gossip, a pragmatic conversationalist, and a feminist ground-breaker.
In The Masks of Aphra Behn, we hear a fraction of her life story, yet I wanted to get far deeper into her experience as a female writer in a world of men, and about her sexuality. There are tantalising hints of both, but this Aphra keeps her mask firmly on in those areas, and the bulk of the play is about the spy who is manipulated, side-lined, and almost left destitute.
The facts of Behn’s life are sketchy, even by her own account, with much speculation and invention. Amias has taken letters, poetry and prose from the real record and developed it into a piece which gives a glimpse into the world in which this woman flourished.
In Oranges and Ink, Behn is joined by her friend Nell Gwynne, one of the King’s mistresses, and an actress. Played by Sarah Lawrie, she is fiery, forthright, and down-to-earth, and this brings out the fun and frivolous side to Amias’s Aphra Behn.
Although it is not essential to have knowledge of either woman as a real person from history, having some familiarity with “poor little Nell” adds a touch of interest to this duologue and gives some insight into the friendship that may have existed between two creative people who have seized “whatever opportunity came along”.
As Behn, Amies displays a gift for switching between characters and voices quickly and effectively, bringing her monologue to life with portraits of courtiers, a dour landlord, and an intriguing courtesan to life. Her body language is dominant and rather masculine, as she sits with legs akimbo and strides with authority around the stage.
Although we do not hear much about her writing, it is clear to see from the character presented before us in both plays that she would be frank about relationships, sex, and the place of women in society. She engages directly with the audience as she tells her tale.
When Lawrie joins the show, we hear the stories about Nell Gwynne and her relationship with the King, and her rise as “the Protestant whore”. Gwynne and Behn giggle like schoolgirls about the shenanigans at court, where they once laced the drink of a rival mistress with laxatives, but there is a clearly defined devotion from the low-born orange seller towards the high-born Royal, the man who has granted her a position, given her children (the death of one is briefly touched upon) and kept her in luxury.
As a filmed piece of theatre, both pieces suffer from occasional sound problems which lead to lines being missed. One downside to digital theatre has been the lack of closed captioning, which surely must be something to think about as we step into the new normal. Innovation and investment must be considered differently when presenting filmed theatre to traditional live performance.
The Masks of Aphra Behn is filmed completely in one fixed position, in a medium shot, while Oranges and Ink seems to have more than one camera with occasional closer shots which I found distracting. However, both plays are filmed professionally, and there is no problem in seeing and enjoying facial expressions from either actor.
The double bill of The Masks of Aphra Behn and Oranges and Ink is available to watch via Scenesaver. You can register for free to watch this and over 100 other productions.
Header image credit: So & So Arts Club