‘We’re bringing Aphra home,’ declared Nicola Loud, as she opened the first Aphra Behn Society event at the Canterbury Festival on 21 October. And so we were. The 12th-century St Paul’s Church in Canterbury is where Aphra’s parents were married in 1638, and I’d spent the afternoon in a somewhat dreamy state, finding myself more moved than I’d realized I’d be at having Behn’s words performed in the church where that Bartholomew Johnson—Elizabeth Denham wedding took place.
L: Melanie Gutteridge performs Behn’s words. R: The Musicke Company members in live performance. Images: Elaine Hobby.
The ability of the actor Melanie Gutteridge to bring Aphra’s many voices alive was of course a huge contributor to the power of what followed. Equally important were the extraordinary talents of The Musicke Company, Philippa Hyde (soprano), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Daisy Vatalaro (baroque ’cello), and Helen Rogers (harpsichord) as they wove their way through not only – of course – excerpts from Henry Purcell’s Abdelazer Suite (written for Behn’s tragedy), but also selections from John Playford, Thomas Arne, George Frideric Handel, Giovanni Bononcini, and lots more Purcell.
My job for the evening had been to suggest the Behn passages that would best harmonise – or challenge – the music. To my delight, most popular with the audience (according to the applause but also the questionnaire that dozens of them kindly completed) was Oroonoko’s speech calling on his fellow enslaved people to rebel. But, as many commented, it was hard to choose a favourite when the options ran from ‘Love in fantastic triumph sat’ to ‘On her loving two equally’, via ‘Epitaph on the Tombstone of a Child, the Last of Seven that Died before’, ‘To the fair Clarinda, imagined more than woman’, and many more. The most applauded piece of music was Arne’s ‘When Daisies Pied’, with its teasing ‘Cuckoo’ chorus. It was a wonderful, magical evening, most ably introduced and curated by Nicola Loud.
Fortunately, The Musicke Companye and Melanie Gutteridge were so delighted with the event and its reception that they are talking of taking the show on a tour. For updates, watch this space. If you are planning an event that might feature a stunning performance of Behn, Purcell and friends, do get in touch with E-ABIDA.
On Sunday evening, 12 June, I was privileged to sit in on a rehearsal of the extracts from Behn’s The Amorous Prince that the Canterbury Players will be performing at a Garden Party being held by the Aphra Behn Society of Canterbury on 9 July. The cast, directed by Sally Elkerton, have been rehearsing around their day jobs since the middle of May, and are at that wonderful stage in their work where they’re not only (pretty much) off-book, but also well placed to experiment with the physical choices of staging, as well as different ways of playing exchanges.
They are working with a script that I created for them by modernising the text that will appear in Volume I of The Cambridge Edition. After I had sent Sally the whole play, we worked out together which sections would work best for the limited time – 20 to 25 minutes – that we have on 9 July. And Sally drafted some brief narrations that will enable our audience to follow the – sometimes terrifying – developments in the characters’ relationships.
When I was first working on the script, I was mostly struck by how radical The Amorous Prince is in its presentation of royal power and male violence. That became all the clearer as I watched Frederick, the amorous prince (David Keen) move from his seduction of the young, naive Cloris (Emma Willetts) to calmly advising Laura (Emma Ozenbrook) that, given his power, she had better give him what he demands – her body. The play has never, as far as I know, been performed since its premiere in 1671. It should be much better known by those interested in Behn’s later plays.
In this picture, the narrator (Lisa Nightingale) directs the audience’s attention to Laura, so that no-one can miss the fact that she is concealing a knife. Frederick, about to enter and make his demands of Laura, watches from offstage, and Sally at this moment intervenes to nudge the cast to make the sequence even more chilling. Not in the picture is Cloris – not only is she not in this scene, but Emma Willetts doubles as a sax-player whose brief interventions both set the mood and guide the transitions.
What happens once Laura draws her knife on Frederick? Well, you might have to come along to the Garden Party of the Aphra Behn Society of Canterbury on 9 July to find out. Or you could read the play – though you’d miss all the skill and wisdom that the Canterbury Players are bringing to the event. Tickets are still available via Eventbrite.
Reading The Rover with 18 other Aphra Behn afficionados in St Peter’s church in Canterbury. With an audience of curious onlookers who stayed and stayed, even as the church got colder and colder. That might not be everyone’s ideal Bank Holiday activity, but for me, nothing could have been more dazzling. And the fact that this coincided with a supposedly national jubilee for Elizabeth II means that I shall always remember my version of a street party.
The Rover is not only (perhaps) Behn’s best play – certainly, her most successful, being performed in London every season for decades after her death – it is also very dear to my heart. Having taught it (at least) a hundred times over the years, and seen (I think) twelve productions, I’ve also edited it for our Cambridge Edition of the Works of Aphra Behn, and it will appear in Volume II in 2023.
But being required to ‘be’ Willmore – I had no control over the casting! – I learned how wholly callous he is. Despite the occasional flights of poetic fancy, he is entirely without conscience – or, indeed, any sense that a person might need one. Having made friends with ‘Angellica Bianca’ before we started, I was very glad when she accepted with alacrity the use of my grandsons’ mock-gun as she forced Willmore to back across the stage, again and again. I’d always thought it a great pity that Don Antonio should happen by just as Angellica has told Willmore that she has to kill him ‘for the publick safety of our sex’. Such a shame.
If that’s your idea of fun, do come along on Saturday 11 June to Canterbury to participate in – or just watch, if you prefer – the reading of Behn’s last play to be premiered, The Younger Brother. The play’s not as well-known as it should be, though Margarete Rubik’s edition in Volume IV of The Cambridge Edition is starting to change that. Central is Mirtilla – married, juggling with that the passionate attraction to her of two men, and herself infatuated with her page who turns out, of course, to be a woman. What’s not to enjoy?
Participants are invited to sign up on the Canterbury Commemoration Society Events page. Or, if you want to come but are too snowed under this month, how about The Widow Ranter on 2 July?