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The Masks of Aphra Behn at the White Bear Theatre

For those who doubt that women have been side-lined by history, Aphra Behn is hard to deal with. She wrote poetry and several novels and, with 19 full-length works for the stage to her name, she was Britain’s first female playwright. While the details of her career in espionage are – inevitably – not wholly clear, what is clear is that she did have one.

The Masks of Aphra Behn photo by Greg Goodale.
The Masks of Aphra Behn photo by Greg Goodale.

According to early eighteenth-century biographers, Behn was born and baptised in Wye, near Canterbury in Kent, on the 10th of June 1640 where her name is recorded in the parish register as Ayfara Johnson. All of which might be true. Or not. What is certainly true is that she died young, on the 16th of April 1689. She was buried in the east cloister of Westminster Abbey and today, nearly four centuries later, the Canterbury Commemoration Society is raising funds for a statue (www.cantcommsoc.co.uk). The perfect time then for a revival of Claire Amias’s excellent one-woman show, which draws on Behn’s own letters, poetry and plays.

Amias also plays Behn and in this production, directed by Pradeep Jey, she gives an engaging performance as the first woman to earn her living as a professional writer. It is 1677 and the audience assembled to see Behn’s best-known work, The Rover, are in for a surprise. The performance has been cancelled and, to compensate, the playwright herself takes to the stage and recounts the extraordinary story of her life. Aided by subtle changes in lighting and Keri Danielle Chesser’s effective sound design, Amias takes us to the West Indies, where Behn lived with the family of her uncle in what is now the Republic of Suriname. In 1663 she travels back to Britain and to London where, after being widowed, she becomes a spy against the Dutch for King Charles the Second. Amias is wholly convincing, playing not only the “amorous” Mrs Behn”, the King, her friend John Dryden and various paramours.

This highly recommended, very entertaining production is on tour in January and February.

4 stars

Review by Louis Mazzini

It’s 1677 and an audience getting ready to watch Aphra Behn’s The Rover are in for a surprise. For the show has been cancelled and in its place Aphra herself recounts the extraordinary tale of her time as a spy for King Charles II in the Dutch Wars, and how she became the first professional female writer. Complete with excerpts from Behn’s letters, poetry and plays, this vivid and thought-provoking one-woman show brings one of theatre’s most brilliant raconteurs back to life.

First performed in the Women and War Festival at the So & So Arts Club 2016. It then toured the UK in 2017, and streamed in the Off Online Fringe Festival 2020.

Written and performed by Claire Louise Amias
Directed by Pradeep Jey
Costume by Anna Sørensen Sargent

Details at https://www.amonkeywithcymbals.co.uk/

The Masks of Aphra Behn
Written and performed by Claire Louise Amias
11th – 13th January 2023

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