By Amalia Costa
The year is 1677, and Aphra Behn has gatecrashed her own play. Instead of a pre-scheduled performance of The Rover, Behn takes to the stage to tell the story of her life up until this point, in a one-woman show by Claire Amias, whose charismatic portrayal of Behn reveals a character study rich in humour and pathos.
Claire Amias portrays Behn with all the gleeful wit and resonance of your favourite auntie at the family get-together, and you can’t help but envy her elegant gossipy tone as she takes you on a journey of all her various escapades. Amias’ particular quality is challenging her own character’s confidence.
Behn downplays the dangers of her career as a spy and frequent brushes with poverty through wry understatements and an undercurrent of scrappiness, allowing for a gradual progression of mounting danger until the mask falls away in perhaps one of the most desperate moments of Behn’s life, her stint in debtor’s prison. Here, her love for writing becomes both her consolation and her way out.
Image credit: https://www.medwayticketslive.co.uk/event/the-masks-of-aphra-behn
Amias deftly avoids the potential pitfalls of exposition overload, not an easy feat to accomplish given the play is a biography with no other onstage actors to respond to. She regularly morphs into other figures in Behn’s life, offering up different voices and perspectives, and it is here where some of the play’s funniest moments occur.
When Behn/Amias assumes the thrusting, pompous stance of her male counterparts, rakes and royals alike, you get the sense that many of these men seem all the same to her. Until finally, Amias portrays Behn’s chance meeting with an Italian courtesan. The tenderness which Amias possesses in her voice portrays, perhaps for the first time, a genuine connection for Behn, perhaps more so than with any other of the ‘characters’ she portrays. The two women, represented through one perspective and indeed one body, are joined together through their desire for independence, love of literature and, perhaps, for each other.
This tenderness suggests not just an intellectual connection, but a possible romantic one as well. It is the first relationship Behn portrays without the satirical bent that characterises her depictions of dashing rogues, snobbish lords and gossiping mothers (Behn’s impression of her mother spilling secrets is particularly wry and funny).
The set is minimal, consisting of only a chair and ribbons hanging from the ceiling, upon which Amias pins letters to various debtors, agents and lords. I would have liked to see this set piece extended throughout the play, as it’s the only piece used.
Also, though Behn’s eloquence and wit clearly shine through Amias’ use of her letters in her speeches, I would have liked to have seen some more references to her plays.
Overall, the play is a poignant yet funny and playful character study of a larger than life character curiously sidelined by history.
The Masks of Aphra Behn will be performed at the following venues:
The Space, Docklands, London – 17 and 18 February 2023, 7.30pm – The Masks of Aphra Behn – The Space
The Brook Theatre, Chatham, Kent – 22 February 2023, 8pm – The Masks of Aphra Behn – Medway Tickets Live
Jermyn Street Theatre, West End – 19 March 2023, 5pm – The Masks of Aphra Behn | Jermyn Street Theatre
Amalia Costa is a Shakespeare Studies MA Student. Costa’s degree is split jointly between KCL and Shakespeare’s Globe.
Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.
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