From what little we know if it, English playwright (and translator, novelist and poet) Aphra Behn has a remarkable backstory. While not much is known for certain of her early life, she may have visited Francis Willoughby’s colony in South America and maybe even Virginia. What is better documented is that she, a passionate royalist, spied for the King Charles II in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Returning to England heavily in debt (she was possibly imprisoned briefly) she learned to live off her wits and her writing, with her first play The Forced Marriage staged in 1670.

While Behn was not the only female playwright writing around this time – Katherine Philips, Frances Boothby and Elizabeth Polwhele all had plays produced in the second half of the 17th century – she was certainly the most prolific, authoring about 20 plays over her career and she is often cited as the first female professional writer in English. Her work is infused with a sexual frankness – it was often accused of bawdiness – and she spoke out at the hypocrisy that saw her judged for morals in a way that male colleagues weren’t.

Unfortunately the fame she achieved during her lifetime faded after her death, as suffocating ideas of female modesty in the 18th and 19th centuries saw her works pilloried and, more damagingly, ignored by publishers. It was only really in the 20th century that her name became better-known, a collection of her works published in 1915 by Montague Summers and an often-quoted tribute by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”) alerting new audiences to her work.

The Rover, Belvoir St TheatreNikki Shiels in Belvoir St Theatre’s The Rover. Photos © Anna Kucera

Behn’s most successful play, The Rover, is set in the period before the restoration of Charles II (who reopened the theatres in England), and centres around a group of bored English Royalists in exile roaming the streets of Naples at Carnival time. And it is this Carnival theme – with its opportunities to experiment with fluid roles and costumes – that Eamon Flack embraces in this new production for Belvoir St Theatre, an upbeat, semi-contemporary rendering that barrels along at a relentless comic pace in the vein of teen comedy adventures like the 2004 film Eurotrip, but with a festively porous fourth wall that allows for plenty of meta-theatre humour.

The show starts strongly with Nikki Shiels, beer in hand, delivering a brilliantly biting prologue adapted from texts by Behn (including The Rover’s epilogue) with some contemporary quirks thrown in, which has the audience roaring.

Elizabeth Nabben and Taylor FergusonElizabeth Nabben and Taylor Ferguson

Elizabeth Nabben plays Florinda, a young woman in love with the English Colonel Belville (Leon Ford), but whose father has arranged for her to marry the rich elderly Don Vincentio. The opening scene sees her grooming in front of a mirror, engaged in a sparring repartee with her sister Hellena (Taylor Ferguson) – a nun-in-training eager to try her hand at love at the Carnival. Both women are relatively wide-eyed at the beginning (though Hellena’s scathingly sarcastic shopping-list of Don Vincento’s ‘charms’ is a highlight of the first act) but it is they who drive the action, with increasing confidence as the play progresses – the men mostly reacting, stumbling from one event to the next.

Hellena and Florinda’s brother Don Pedro – played with a stuttering earnestness by Andre De Vanny – offers a dubious way out for Florinda: an immediate marriage to his friend Don Antonio – played with a lisping Spanish accent by Nathan Lovejoy (who doubles as Frederick, one of the English boys). Kiruna Stamell, back on an Australian stage for the first time since 2005, is Callis, the governess, who becomes an eager conspirator more than willing to leap into the fray.

The Rover, BelvoirNathan Lovejoy, Leon Ford and Gareth Davies in Belvoir St Theatre’s The Rover

Toby Schmitz is charmingly flighty as the generally drunk Willmore – the titular rover – who falls for Hellena, but is easily distracted by any woman who comes his way, including the high-priced courtesan Angellica ­– played as a fiery Italian (Russian?) showgirl by Shiels. Megan Wilding – who recently won the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award – doubles wonderfully as Angellica’s jaded take-no-shit bouncer Moretta and the cunning, mercenary scammer Lucetta.

Ford is an increasingly highly-strung Belville, the straight-man baffled, frustrated and enraged by the events spiralling out of his control, and Wilmore’s drunkenly destructive actions. (Behn’s play draws attention to the fact that a free-love attitude in this society poses far greater risks for women than men – the worst consequence Wilmore suffers as a result of his behaviour is that his mates are pissed off with him.)

Gareth Davies plays an awkward, shy Ned Blunt – an easy mark for the predatory Lucetta – who inspires pity when his heart is broken but whose transformation to bitter, violent misogynist is effectively alarming, the mood veering suddenly away from comedy.

The Rover, BelvoirMegan Wilding in Belvoir St Theatre’s The Rover

Flack sets a bustling pace in the first half – two hours fly by – but the excitement slackens somewhat in the second, as the play navigates some darker territory at odds with the generally upbeat mood.

Dramaturg Charlotte Bradley has tightened Behn’s text, leaving a number of minor characters on the cutting-room floor and some trimming also removes Frederick’s eagerness to get involved in an attempted rape. While this allows Frederick to remain a lovable character, it focuses more responsibility for the violence on the ‘lonely weirdo’ character Blunt, and less on the broader culture that encourages his behaviour. It also sidesteps an issue of class – in Behn’s text Frederick only balks at Blunt’s proposed punitive rape when handed a ring given to her by Belville: “’twould anger us vilely to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality, when we only believe we ruffle a harlot.” While there is an opportunity missed here to explore some of these ideas in more depth, Flack has chosen instead to focus primarily on the comedy and a joyous celebration of sexual freedom and female agency.

The Rover, Belvoir St TheatreNathan Lovejoy and Kiruna Stamell in Belvoir St Theatre’s The Rover

Mel Page’s set is flexible and economical, an open space lined with cool blue-green tiles – and a pool set in the centre – that conjures indoor and outdoor settings equally effectively, leaving plenty of room for the chase scenes and a window that opens over the stage.

In a cosmopolitan city full of English, Spanish and local Italians, the cast plays fast and loose with accents, which slip and slide in the service of comedy rather than verisimilitude. The cast also breaks character on occasion to explain some of the more important (or simply funnier) words the 17th-century English throws up, giving the show a relaxed, shoot-from-the-hip feel that cuts through the more archaic elements.

All in all, The Rover is a blast. The cast is generally strong across the board – the banter between the English boys is very effective – and Wilding is a highlight. The first half of the show, particularly, is a laugh-a-minute, and there’s plenty of swashbuckling (by both men and women) and physical comedy to be had. Well worth checking out.

The Rover is at Belvoir St Theatre until August 6.