Loveday Ingram is breathing new life into Aphra Behn’s The Rover, currently being staged at the RSC (and recently reviewed on Criticks). Here, in an interview with Dr Lyndsey Bakewell, she tells us how she learned of Aphra Behn, embarked on this new adaptation, and fell in love with the play.
Aphra Behn, the first professional female playwright in English theatre, and the second most theatrically prolific writer of the Restoration period, following only John Dryden, produced a wealth of plays, poems and prose fiction, demonstrating an abundance of literary talent. Writing during a time of theatrical monopoly for the Duke’s Company, Behn’s plays provided her with success in line with her male contemporaries. While Behn was not the only female playwright during this period, she is perhaps the best known, as her works continually challenged the boundaries of appropriate conduct and opinion. Following an interesting career as a spy during the last years of the second Anglo-Dutch War, Behn’s plays reflect on society, royalty and the historical events of the period. Her best-known play, The Rover, was first performed in 1677 and presents a farcical reflection of the interregnum and cavalier behaviour with overtly bawdy undertones. With the script being adapted from Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso, Behn’s new play was coarse in nature and revelled in the popularity of sex comedies in the period to help promote its success. With its fast-paced and sexually-charged narrative, Behn’s play draws on comedy and wit to dig into the societal expectations and relations of the Restoration period.
In 1677, the staging of Behn’s play drew on the tools of Restoration spectacle, which remained popular, visual elements of theatrical production. With lavish displays of scenery, machinery and costume, Behn’s play used the setting of carnival to promote its popularity and utilise the new, European delights of the stage. The setting of The Rover presents numerous lively and entertaining staging opportunities, and for this reason, I was keen to discover the choices Ingram made for this modern production.
Lyndsey Bakewell: Why did you choose to stage Aphra Behn’s The Rover?
Loveday Ingram: I chose The Rover specifically because I was the research assistant for about five years for a man called John Barton, and [he] was the founding RSC director in the sixties. I worked for him for several years and during that time I discovered this play called The Rover on the shelf in his office. I had a look at it and didn’t know it and didn’t know much about Aphra Behn, so I immediately looked her up and realised she was a woman, and she’d written a huge amount of plays and I didn’t know any of them. I have an MA in English and I didn’t know anything about her, and [I studied] classics and she’s not been any part of my education at all. I’m not profoundly feminist but I believe very strongly in women’s rights and equality. I rushed through to John and said ‘what is this play, tell me more’ – so it began with the play specifically rather than the Restoration period, which I then read more about and read more about the play and fell in love with [it].
LB: What was your response to the play once you had found it?
LI: It’s a crazy anarchic piece where three women go against all the odds and are determined to decide their own fate against the strong hand of the authority figures in their lives. And obviously the wonderful character of Willmore is absolutely irresistible and despicable, [a] fabulous mixture. As a theatre director it’s all about getting to the heart of the human condition in the different characters you are given in different plays; to be given Willmore was a joy as he’s so contradictory and so full of extremes. But also the fact that [the] play was set in carnival. The flamboyance of carnival, the excitement of carnival, the colour, and my background being in classics as well, I immediately took myself back to the Saturnalia festivals of the Roman period which carnivals today, I believe, are based on, or come from, and with that the mischievousness and the upturning of order and reversal of roles and disguise, and downright naughtiness and all of those ingredients were delicious. I fell in love with it straight away.
LB: Have you read any of Behn’s other plays?
LI: I’ve read a little of her other stuff. I’ve read some of Oroonoko and dived in and out of some of her plays and there is some extraordinary stuff, and I’ve read some of her poetry, which I love, so yes, generally around, but my starting point was always The Rover. It would have to have been something rather extraordinary to pull me away from that. But now I have started to look at some of her other plays and we use quite a lot of her poems in the production. I also use some of the poems of Rochester as well.
LB: When you started thinking about staging the piece, what did you think were the important decisions?
LI: There were lots of important components in how to stage it. The first was location and setting of time and place – I looked at lots of options. I wanted it to be of its time because I felt it was important for a modern day audience to be able to see the constraints that women of the 1670s were faced with. If I’d put it in a totally contemporary setting I don’t think their world would have resonated. So one of the first things was to make sure the play was rooted in the seventeenth century [and] its sensibilities, although how it was realised I wanted to be more contemporary, so it would be accessible to a young, modern audience today, and one of the key ways to do that for me was through music. So with the designer we thought about possible places to set it. It’s set in Naples, and how carnival is manifested in Naples became one of my next questions. Now the Italian carnival is most familiar – Venetian carnival, which is very beautiful, but it’s quite composed and is all about show and presentation; everyone is very covered up and it looks beautiful. But I was more interested in the Pagan roots of carnival, which are much more mischievous – the inversion of the normal codes of behaviour in society – so I wanted to try and unlock that side of carnival more. So I took all of the ingredients, which were carnival, Catholicism and colonialism, and looked at ways of finding or inventing a world that brought all three together. At the time of the play, set in Naples, the Spanish were the colonial power, so the Spanish were the ruling nation who had come in and imposed their rules and who had all the power and money of the local Italian community – so when I started looking at the music I found that actually there are places elsewhere where the music was much more exciting – for me that was Latin America. So I looked across to Latin America, South America, to see if I could find a potentially similar community and environment – and there are many. Buenos Aires, in that period of time, was ruled by the Spanish; the Portuguese were coming in, the English were coming in, the French were coming in. It was the same with Cuba, but basically the two extreme points of that east coast and all the way down, it works. The designer and I created an imaginary world that was based on Buenos Aires, but was heavily influenced by Cuba – so you had all of the musical influences from the African slave trade that came across from Africa to South America, where the music was fused with the wonderful Latin American music, which is where jazz was born and samba and salsa, so that immediately gave us a more exciting template for the location and setting.
LB: It’s interesting to hear you moved the location, because your research demonstrates how influential political events in countries were in the period. Did you find creating an imaginary world allowed you to explore the international challenges of the period?
LI: Another thing which was interesting in all of those communities, but particularly in Buenos Aires, was that the Spanish imposed very heavy taxation on the locals, so a strong black market developed and for decades there were huge clashes between the local indigenous people and the ruling Spanish, and basically the locals tried to find ways to avoid paying these massive taxes and the Spanish tried to find ways to make them. There became great tensions in society, and then of course with the English and the French coming in, it became a great melting pot of tension, as well as great diversity and excitement. So that is loosely how we created an imaginary world, which we called Buenos Havana.
LB: Did you feel that the audience would automatically connect with the characters? Did you find yourself wanting to move away from the stock characters presented by Behn?
LI: What we tried to do with the characterisation was to explore the extremities that the characters were experiencing – so not to bounce gently along the top but to find out where the really dark spots were and where they went to: when something went wrong, where the character responded; if they were thwarted, how they responded and shared that with the audience; when they were right and overjoyed, how they shared that with the audience – so the extremities of the characters were quite important and quite defining in how we processed it in the rehearsal room. As far as the characters being close to stock Restoration characters, the stock Restoration characters are actually based on Commedia dell’Arte characters, which are in turn based on the Saturnalia’s characters from the early Roman festival – so it went back to my classical roots and actually I went there as a starting point rather than the Restoration period.
LB: Did you feel you had to distance yourself from the other plays of the RSC and the very traditional Shakespeare plays?
LI: No, not at all. Obviously what I was doing in the rehearsal room was bringing to life the play that I had in front of me, but I am passionate about Shakespeare and text, and text analysis. And my training was with John Barton who is one of the most brilliant practitioners in the actual speaking and acting of Elizabethan, Shakespearean text, so that is my background. I am very old-school traditional in my approach to text and language and how that is delivered through an actor on stage. So I was influenced by it, but in the rehearsal room I was doing the play that I had in front of me and within that you look at the sections where the play goes into verse and the sections where it’s in prose, and if it goes into verse why does it go into verse and how is it different, and how is it different for an actor to deliver it.
LB: Do you see that there is a future trajectory for Aphra Behn’s plays, and more broadly plays of the Restoration, to be staged more regularly?
LI: I think there has always been a lot of interest in Restoration theatre, I think because it’s so much fun and so exuberant and playful to watch. I am absolutely passionate that one of my aims is to make sure that Behn took her rightful place among the other heavyweights in Restoration theatre. And I hope that it will specifically be an important step towards her being considered a much more mainstream, leading figure in that period of British theatre, which is her rightful place.
It was wonderful to discuss Ingram’s choices, and her research has helped her produce a version of The Rover which a contemporary audience can relate to, but that also complements Behn’s original writing choices. Her adaptation of the play is truly a celebration of Aphra Behn, her strength, perseverance and talent as a writer, and a re-telling of the joys of Restoration theatre. Behn remains a voice we need to hear more of, and Ingram’s re-telling of The Rover takes us one step closer.
 See Janet Todd, Aphra Behn Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 1.
 For more information on Restoration Spectacle see: Lyndsey Bakewell, Changing Scenes and Flying Machines: A Re-examination of Spectacle and the Spectacular in Restoration Theatre, 1660-1714. Unpublished Thesis, 2016.