In the Rehearsal Room with Aphra Behn
I’m writing from the rehearsal room. Only there’s no room. Or rather there is a room, in Bicester (a town in North-East Oxfordshire), but only some of the cast is there, along with a green screen and a prop and costume store. The rest of the us – including the director and me – are online. This is a very different kind of rehearsal.
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked as a dramaturg on a good few shows and readings. But I’ve never been part of a digital production – a show that’s born digital, that’s created specifically to be performed live each night to an audience watching on their computer screens. This is what we’re attempting with Creation Theatre’s production of Aphra Behn’s 1687 farce, The Emperor of the Moon.
Behn’s play – the last of hers to be performed before her death – gives us the story of Dr. Baliardo. He’s obsessed with bizarre scientific theories, above all as they relate to the moon. Baliardo in fact is convinced that the moon is inhabited, indeed that there is a moon ‘world’ with its own government, laws, and social niceties. Meanwhile, he keeps his daughter and niece under lock and key, frustrating their attempts to meet with their respective lovers.
The escape plan is an elaborate con: a work of theatre. With the aid of Scaramouch – servant, trickster, arch-improvisor – the younger generation convince Baliardo that he’s to be visited by none other than the Emperor of the Moon himself. At the play’s climax, the con is revealed, love triumphs, and Baliardo is ‘cured’ of his (literal) lunacy.
The play was first performed at Dorset Garden Theatre, London’s first ‘machine house’ that was purposed built for spectacular theatre. And The Emperor of the Moon was spectacular, with a gigantic telescope larger than the stage itself and chariots descending on clouds. But how can we make this work for audiences today? And how can we make it work without the lavish, blockbuster effects that came with the Restoration’s most state-of-the-art theatre? These are the questions driving my Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, a collaboration with Creation Theatre funded by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities).
I’m lucky to be working with an amazing team at Creation, including director Gari Jones. Gari’s vision for, and adaptation of, the play is a radical one. He’s challenged me more than any other director I’ve worked with. But the further into this process we get, the more excited I’ve become by the ideas being generated by Gari and our talented cast. Think cults, post-apocalyptic landscapes, parodic dystopia, and alien invasion. The truth is out there. We have several more days of rehearsal ahead of us, but I can promise you – because, of course, you’ll be watching it! – that this show will give you Restoration drama as you’ve never seen it before. No wigs, no breeches, no petticoats.
What’s especially compelling for me, at this stage, is how Gari is using Behn’s farce to explore the issues surrounding digital media and the production of ‘truth’. The Emperor of the Moon isn’t just a spectacular play: it’s a play about spectacle. Behn was writing at a moment when both experimental science and theatre were shaped by new visual technologies – technologies that were viewed with suspicion, even alarm, by some. The horizons of the visible were expanding rapidly. What could be seen (through a telescope or microscope) or shown (through moveable scenery, trapdoors, flying machines, pyrotechnics) could no longer be taken for granted. Behn’s play is interested in the volatile relations between seeing and believing, sight and truth.
All of this sounds scarily familiar, doesn’t it? Gari’s take on Emperor pulls the play into the age of TikTok, Instagram, FaceTime, and AI image generators. In part, this is a matter of exploiting what’s possible on Zoom – or, rather, vMix, the ‘vision mixing’ software we're using – that isn’t possible with a physical stage. But this production does more than just wholeheartedly embrace its own digital medium – it also interrogates it. The rehearsal process is asking searching questions about how we engage with and how far we trust what our screens show us and tell us. As Gari put it on Day 1 of rehearsals, he wants the audience (perhaps the performers, too) to be asking themselves: “What is real?”
For me, this is exciting because I’m interested in thinking of the history of theatre as a history of media – above all, as a history of the visual. But the history of theatre is also the history of an audience. And our main aim is to find Behn’s wonderful, crazy, 336-year-old farce the new audience it very much deserves.
The Emperor of the Moon runs 22, 25-28 April 2023. The shows on 27 and 28 are at 11.45pm BST / 6.45pm Eastern.
Tickets are just £10 per device and are available here: