John Downes was the script prompter for the Duke's Company, where Aphra Behn's plays were originally produced. In addition to cueing the actors when they forgot their lines, his "historical review of the stage", Roscius Anglicanus is a seminal firsthand account of Restoration theatre. These are his recently discovered ruminations from a slightly later production of a pretty, witty play called OR, penned by the poetess Liz Duffy Adams in homage to the incomparable Astrea, as channelled and interpreted by Louise Edwards (dramaturg) and Kristin Idaszak (assistant director).
First Rehearsal Liz Duffy Adams's OR, directed by Catherine Weidner
In the first scene of OR, a disguised Charles II visits the former spy and aspiring playwright Aphra Behn (Agent Code Name Astrea) in debtors prison. Once his identity is revealed the two realize they have a lot in common, namely their exiles from London. And yet, Charles says, "I hardly knew how to be glad once I was here, longing itself became such a habit of mind."
That's how I feel about first rehearsals--each play is a very foreign country that I am privileged to enter into for a few weeks or months, to explore its shores and cities. But that exploration of this new world begins weeks before rehearsals themselves start, with design and production meetings, dramaturgical research and script meetings, so that by the time first rehearsal arrives, the longing itself has become such a habit of mind, indeed.
This rehearsal brimmed with excitement. OR, is a three-hander sex farce featuring Aphra Behn, Nell Gwyn, Charles II and a few inopportune visitors, and the script evokes the 1660s, the 1960s and today: "this our time of mingled hope and fear." Our scenic designer Stephen Carmody is manifesting that concept by creating a theatre within a theatre--the world of the play takes place in 1660, the actors are in the 1960s, rocking out to records of Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Kinks in their "backstage", and the audience traverses all three time periods.
The play is all about the "seeming opposites" we all embody, and how we variously mask and reveal our multifarious identities. Aphra observes that "it's a nasty little world of lies, subterfuge, backstabbing and betrayal," to which Nell replies, "Are you talking about spying or the theatre?"
We have just begun to ricochet between the many ors our playwright and her characters have set before us. Expect many more updates from the rehearsal room, dramaturgical teasers, and inside looks at the incomparable Astrea--or should we say Aphra--and her friends.
Johnny Downes, October 1, 2011