As the actors stepped nervously onto the hay-strewn stage for this first preview of The Rover they carried not only the weight of having to make the audience laugh - its a restoration comedy - but also the label of it being one of the earliest feminist plays.
Aphra Behn's tale of the tangled loved affairs of a three gentlemen involving two sisters and a courtesan is exemplified by contemporary feminists for showing the vulnerability of women. We'll never know if that is what she had in mind but what we do know is that Behn was hung out to dry by her employer King Charles II for whom she spied and turned to writing to make ends meet.
The vulnerability of the female characters and, in particular Florinda, reaches a height when she is the victim of not one but two attempted rapes. The second attempt is motivated by a wish to wreak revenge on women by a man who has been spurned and robbed by a prostitute with whom he was in love. What makes it worse is that it is perpetrated by the buffoon of the play, the butt of most of the jokes.
And here I have a problem. Like my recent visit to see What The Butler Saw, I just don't find jokes about rape funny and watching the attempt, coupled with supposedly jovial dialogue, was just disturbing.
If that is what Behn intended then she succeeded but for me it sits uncomfortably in any comedy and particularly in a restoration comedy where the characters are larger than life and the story frothy and frivolous. And I'm not criticising the latter per se, restoration comedy can be cracking good fun, in fact there's been some great productions this year including the Way of the World and She Stoops to Conquer.
The Rover has some nice moments in it and some great feisty female characters. I'm sure the nerves will subside and as the performances gel the physical comedy will come more to the fore but for me it was tainted by those two very dark scenes.
I'm giving it three and a half stars and if you want to catch it, it runs at the lovely but stuffy on a humid summer evening New Diorama Theatre until August 25.