Aphra Behn, born in 1640, went on to become the first professional female writer in English, writing poetry, plays and novels. She is not as widely known as she deserves to be, and on hearing about a campaign by the Canterbury Commemoration Society to raise a statue of her, theatre company A Monkey With Cymbals brought back their piece about Aphra Behn. The Masks of Aphra Behn, written by and starring Claire Louise Amias, uses excerpts from Behn’s work to tell us a dramatic, educational and most of all entertaining, story.
We begin a little meta, with a play within a play. It is 1677 and the audience has come to see Behn’s play The Rover. The actress, however, is indisposed. This is announced by Behn herself, who has stepped forward to entertain us with her life story, asking if we knew she was also a spy for the Court of King Charles II? Behn regales us with her time spying in Antwerp, her relationships and her issues with money. Spying does not seem to have been a well-paid career and she ends up in debtors’ prison. A missive to the King begging for assistance sees her then working as a ‘she-writer’ for the King’s theatre company. This, and the term ‘she-spy’ remind the audience of a woman’s place in the world in 1677.
The very talented Amias switches between characters as Behn narrates and then brings in lovers, spies and even King Charles. She clearly and skillfully changes both voice and body language, and her changes are equally entertaining, leading to more than one laugh. Amias, wearing a simple dress and fabulous shoes by Anna Sørensen Sargent, embodies Aphra Behn. She is warm and charming, welcoming audience members as if they were her contemporaries. With a sparse set, and under Pradeep Jey’s direction, Amias plays the room well, which is sometimes a challenge within the two sides of White Bear Theatre’s black box setup. The set, a simple chair and hanging ribbons, later reveals itself to allow Behn to hang letters and documents representing her work.
We spend a lot of time on intrigue and espionage in Holland, at times in slightly too much detail, and it would have been good to learn a little more about Behn’s writing career. Given that she is described as missing from the history of literature, it would have been interesting to hear more on that, but this is not to detract from an entertaining and well presented story.
After the curtain call, Amias tells us that less than 2% of the statues in the world are of women, and directs us to the programme, which includes a link to the Canterbury Commemoration Society’s campaign to raise a statue of Aphra Behn – A Is For Aphra. A Monkey With Cymbals has created a fantastic tribute to Aphra Behn and shone a brilliant spotlight on this trailblazing woman. Wouldn’t a statue be a wonderful and well-deserved addition?
Written by: Claire Louise Amias
Directed by: Pradeep Jey
Produced by A Monkey With Cymbals
You can find out more about this play and Aphra Behn in our recent interview here.
The Masks of Aphra Behn plays at White Bear Theatre until 13 January. Further information and bookings can be found here.