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Hampton Court Palace and Artluxe present
A bold new production of the Restoration classic play in the Baroque Apartments of Hampton Court Palace
by Alphra Benn
Adapted for Hampton Court Palace by Amy Lodge
Director – Amy Hodge
Designer – Takis
Lighting Designer – Lee Curan
Sound and Music – Tom Gibbons
Choreographer – Raquel Meseguer
Associate Director – Egiva Field
Casting Director – Alison Chard
Never was a pairing more intriguing than that of this exhibition on the relentless pursuit of 17th century sensual pleasure and heady production of Alpra Benn’s timely enactment of its machinations. Seeing one without the other, you’d relinquish a rare chance to see how the latter reflects the former reality.
The Wild, the Beautiful and the Dammed is a fascinating exhibition on 17th century celebrity culture featuring sumptuous portraits of the social climbers of the day, reliant on feminine charm and beauty, without a sense of duty. Elegance may have been key to success, but then, as now, cunning was king.
We all know of Charles II’s actress mistress Nell Gwyn, but who was she really, and who was the notorious Barbara Villiers and what roles did they play in the courtly dramas of their day? The answers to those and other invitingly integral questions and many more are answered here. At the time, a young, beautiful woman only had two pathways to riches, marriage or the royal bed, and the second also assured fame, and in some cases, status. Rather than analyze those facts, the info in The Wild… informs at the same time as it surprises and entertains. Having been to Kensington Palace and written about the experience twice in as many years, I thought I was getting the hang of royal intrigues, but this exhibition took me down the path of ‘merrie’, insatiable King Charles II, through the twisting byways of the Stuarts.
One of the most interesting things about the portraits of the ‘toasts of court’ as the well decked and coiffed mistresses of the king and other aristocratic gentlemen were termed, is the way their esteemed patrons had them mythologized, nearly deified in them. For example, where else, if anywhere, would you see such a woman as Barbara Palmer (nee Villiers) aka the Duchess of Cleveland and her child, Charles Fitzroy, being portrayed as the Virgin Mary and toddler Jesus? I actually found this phenomenon, which is repeated time after time, with whores being represented as saints, Venus (in the case of young Nell Gywn), Cleopatra and other Aphrodites over and over again, usually, through the paintings of Peter Lely, not only unbelievably hypocritical, but also fascinating and shamelessly self-promotional! Catherine, long suffering wife of Charles II who flaunted his multiple mistresses rather than discretely hide them is portrayed in one portrait as Saint Barbara, the same saint several ‘toasts’ are depicted as.
There are additional intrigues. What, for example, was the secret of Nell Gwyn’s longevity as a mistress, especially with such a philandering king? Speculation abounds, but evidence exists to confirm that her unflinching wit and lack of aristocratic links of any kind were the answers. In at least one instance, a young and beautiful wife was soon found dead – poisoned, by a jealous, aristocratic, much older husband. Marriage didn’t stop the flow of libertines and mistresses from bed to bed, partner to partner.
Having seen much on William of Orange and Mary II at Kensington Palace, I viewed them as a happy couple, so I was a bit disillusioned to find that he’d had a mistress too. However, it was gratifying to see a portrait of Queen Anne from the Studio of John Closterman (c. 1702), as a radiant young woman, before she became misshapen and despondent in the aftermath of seventeen full term pregnancies, yielding just one child who lived past the age of two, William, who sadly, died at age eleven. Rather fittingly, the last painting I viewed in the exhibition was of John Wilmot, author of popular poems such as ‘Signor Dildo’ which were the unexpected ‘toasts’ of an 18th Century Art and Literature course (from about 1650) I was on some years ago at University of Greenwich, as the younger students around me were astounded at their seeming vulgarity. As if in acknowledgment of such future nods and winks, Wilmot poses in his portrait (artist unknown) alongside a monkey, wearing an angled poet laureate’s wreath atop its head. Do retrace my steps here, and draw your own, re-enlightened conclusions.
Another, rather startling aspect of this exhibition concerns cosmetics of the period, many of them containing toxic ingredients like mercury while promising flawless complexions. There is a small enamel case here that Mary II used to carry tiny velvet patches in, used for concealing blemishes.
The mention of makeup seems the perfect time to introduce some facts about the author of The Rover.
Alphra Benn (b. 1640 Kent, England – d. 1689, buried in Westminster Abbey), the first English female playwright, had her path mapped out before her. After a stint spent spying on the Dutch on behalf of Charles II, who then refused to pay her expenses, she became a writer to support herself. As Virginia Woolf verified: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” This was certainly true in the 17th century when feminine beauty and its exchange for favours from Aristocratic men was, in most cases, an uneducated and/or ambitious woman’s sole means of advancement. The Rover or the Banish’d Cavaliers based on Thomas Killirgrew’s play Thomao, or the Wanderer (1664), was so popular in its day (1677) that Benn wrote a sequel four years later and its success paved the way for her writing career, during which she penned a number of popular plays, short stories and poems. Her legacy is invaluable, for if the content of The Rover is anything to go on, Benn offers a woman’s point of view at a time when they weren’t even entitled to have a voice. Woolf later stated, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Alphra Benn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."
The Rover, a tale of two eager young men, Willmore, the Rover, (Daniel Weyman) and his best friend, Belville (David Richardo – Pearce) set to enjoy the frivolities and amorous trysts akin to the Carnival of Naples, begins as a new flirtation might, out in the open, where spying eyes can note its nuances. Happening upon Willmore, possibly based on Charles II himself, with a bit of lusty poet John Wilmot thrown in, lounging on a bench while he converses casually about sex with his friend seems natural in the setting of a small courtyard, surrounded by the tall red brick walls of Hampton Court Palace. We amble amicably behind them as they, and painted, costumed accomplices draw us to foot of the main staircase leading to the exhibition, The Wild, the Beautiful and the Dammed, as Don Pedro’s (Carl Prekopp), sisters Florinda (Chloe Pirrie) and Hellena (Beatrix Ronnilly) despair at his plans for them – marriage to his friend, Don Antonio (Paul Albertson) for Florinda and the convent for her younger sister, Hellena. Frustrated, they prepare for their own night of escapism in disguise, to the dubious grandeur of the carnival, where Florinda longs to encounter her true love, Belville and Hellena hopes to experience ‘love’ before dutifully joining the convent. We follow them onward, into an arcade lining a larger, green courtyard where their fellows frolic on the grass, dance round poles wound with coloured ribbon, and a dodgy old fellow offers passersby a chance to rub his Punch’s (as in Judy) tummy, causing a white bobbin to pop merrily from its trousers. ‘Who’s the fool now?’ their song asks – very apropos.
It is a web, alluring, yet somewhat daunting, as we follow the company on from there, some of us led by the hand, through the grandiose rooms of the Baroque apartments, which, in subdued lighting seem to be embracing us with their own unique form of mystical elegance. If I had pause for thought, it was of Fellini, whose canny camera once scanned ancient chambers, filled with ghostly inhabitants. The ‘sale’ we’d been prepped for, with replica coins bearing the likeness of the king, is for sexual services, of a ‘naked’, be-wigged woman, a lean male in lingerie, a pouty school-girl, a muscular, posing sailor. The highpoint of this milieu is the appearance of the bewitching courtesan, Angelica (Nadia Cameron – Blakey) whose madam/owner, Moretta, (Claire Perkins) sets a higher price on her charge’s pleasures than anyone present has ever before encountered. Willmore instantly endeavors to seduce Angelica, without paying for the privilege, and gets into a sword-fight with Don Antonio while in the process of expressing that. Graceful, androgynous figures in coloured tights, sashes and flowing white blouses, beckon to us to come closer, their chalky, statue like countenances cloaking their true identities. This is the decadence of the court of King Charles II, who so liked this play he enjoyed a private staging of it.
As individual scenes bleed into one another and lead us onward, through one history reeking room after another, in one of which one of Willmore’s seduction scenes takes place, housing walls full of weaponry, we witness the undoing of one plan or person after another, in alternatingly clear or surreal fashion, until the mix becomes a penetrating mood, which permeates beyond the play. This is such stuff as nightmares are made of, though its presentation is apt given its darkly damming subject matter.
In some of the echoing rooms we pass through on our way to the play’s conclusion, collections of antique china stand staunchly along high shelves, and lone figures beckon - if no one heeds their call, a guide mysteriously appears to choose one person to be led to them. I try not to breathe as a man young enough to be my son gently touches my hair, his eyes blindfolded, so he can not see me. In another room, a young woman in Jackie O dress writhes along the floor on a sea of glittering black, sequined netting, a red slash streaking her mouth - art meets acting. Shifting sound-scapes which change from room to room are equally evocative, one featuring a warped loop of a riff from ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is.’ Apt, as these rovers mostly, feel their way along, through love, or an act momentarily resembling it. Some will do anything to ensnare. Others, already victimized by lust, unexpectedly turning to an addiction to love, languish. It is an ever spiraling cycle, ever edging downwards – an underworld.
Performances are, ironically, things of genuine beauty here, however much design has gone into their enactment, and it’s plain that the company has had to work very hard indeed to orchestrate everything until it comes across as a striking cacophony of ambition, deception and self-serving sensual pleasure.
As Willmore says near the play’s conclusion, ‘I’ve only done what’s natural to man – following our own good leaders.’ Follow my lead and capture some fleeting sensual pleasure of your own via Artluxe’s stunning production of The Rover in its natural, eerily beautiful setting at Hampton Court Palace.
Copyright Historic Royal Palaces
The Rover - Carl Prekoff as Don Pedro
Photo by Bill Knight
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