Seeing passionate performances is always a beautiful experience, and performers who love their work are always an enjoyable company. Even more so if they are former spies.
The Masks of Aphra Behn, written and performed by Claire Louise Amias and directed by Pradeep Jey, is being brought back to The Space in the context of a fundraiser to build a statue in Canterbury commemorating Aphra Behn. This interesting piece is a well told story about the adventures of the historic figure as a spy. The play begins with one mask, the only physical mask we will see during the performance. The other metaphorical masks will come in and out in a succession of interesting intrigues and political affairs.
The actor and writer Clare Louise Amias strongly connects from the very beginning with the audience, alternating between assigning the spectators in the seats closest to the front different personalities through one-sided dialogues and embodying the different characters taking part in the conversations. This was, however, somewhat the first of a few missed opportunities to make strong decisions regarding the perspective the play is taking. The unusual combination of impersonating most of the characters and assigning some of those to the audience didn’t seem to strengthen the illusion or the mystery. At one point during the performance a woman in the audience even answered to one of the questions Aphra Behn was rhetorically asking, to which the actor reacted with a kind smile.
The story is a very interesting narration and raises the interest on the topic of professional female writers, and the role they had to accept within their society. The heartbreaking phrase by Aphra Behn when complaining about inequalities in the trade, describing “the male part in me, the poet” is one of very interesting implications. Yet, as interesting as that might be, the audience becomes suddenly dragged into a mission following William Scott, and he seems to become a more important part of the piece than Aphra Behn herself. Her friendship with the Venetian female artist whom she seems to adore pales in comparison by its brevity in the narrative, even if it feels so much more passionate and beautiful.
The music at the beginning, the sound design by Keri Danielle Chesser, and the costume design by Anna Sørensen Sargent try to bring us into a historical setting in the past, but the theme of the play is incredibly contemporary. In this regard, there seems to be, again, a lack of clarity on which position the play is taking, whether bringing the topic to a contemporary perspective or merely telling the story from 1677’s Aphra Behn’s perspective. One might argue that the play does not need to take any stance, but performance-wise, this seems to be debilitating its expressive outcome.
Beautifully performed and directed, this is an amazing play for lovers of intrigue and spies and for those who want to learn more about the incredible life of Aphra Behn.
Reviewer: Gonzalo Sentana
Reviewed: 18th February 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★