Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Claire Louise Amias: The Masks Of Aphra Behn

By | Published on Sunday 20 November 2022

I’ve always been interested in the Seventeenth Century writer Aphra Behn, not least because she seemed to be so ahead of her time.

So of course I was interested when I heard that writer and performer Claire Louise Amias is bringing her one woman show about Behn to the White Bear Theatre shortly.  

‘The Masks Of Aphra Behn’ is directed by Pradeep Jey and produced by A Monkey With Cymbals, the company Amias and Jey founded in 2009. 

I spoke to Claire to find out more about the play, the company, and her career on stage and screen.  

CM Can you start by telling us what to expect from the narrative of the play? Does it focus on particular aspects of Aphra Behn’s life?
CLA: It focuses on her early life, but in particular from the age of 25, when she became a spy for several years, right up to her success with her play ‘The Rover’ in 1677 at age 37.

In writing it, I was seeking to answer the question, how did a working-class woman earn her living as a writer when that was virtually impossible – and on top of that, how did she become one of the most prolific and celebrated writers of her age?

By focusing on her time as a spy, and the circumstances and life experiences surrounding that, I explore how she was able to create her role as ‘the first professional female writer’.

CM: For those who don’t know, can you expand a bit about who she was?
CLA: Aphra Behn was the first professional female writer in the English language and came to prominence in the reign of King Charles II.

She not only wrote a huge number of plays – mainly comedies poking fun at powerful figures of the day, but also critiquing gender roles in a sometimes very modern way – but she’s also a strong contender for first ever novelist in the English language – her book ‘Oroonoko’ was written in 1688 and argued against the slave trade.

She was a female libertine and led an extraordinary life. She was the daughter of a wet nurse and a barber from Canterbury, but inveigled her way into royal circles, became a spy in the Second Dutch War, and travelled the world.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
CLA: The main themes are gender roles, class, masks and masquerade, spying, creativity and self-expression.

CM: What inspired you to create a show about Aphra Behn? What made you want to write this play?
CLA: I guess the overriding spur was – what an amazing person she was. She overcame class and gender barriers and had a career in the arts at a time when it was nearly impossible for someone like her.

Not only that, she’s also an intriguing character in the way she created her public persona. Historians have differed greatly in their telling of her story, as she purposefully obfuscated certain details and encouraged a more romanticised version for public eyes.

Reading about her time as a spy – that alone left me wondering why there’s never been a feature film about her adventures. I also focused on this period in ‘The Masks Of Aphra Behn’ because it’s the best documented part of her life, in surviving letters and court documents.

CM: When you wrote it, did you always intend to perform it yourself?
CLA: Yes, I wrote the show to perform myself. I wanted to create a perennial one-woman show. I considered Anais Nin at one point, but once I started researching Aphra Behn for an MA project I did at RADA, that was it. I became slightly obsessed by her plays and her history.

CM: You are also supporting the A Is For Aphra campaign – can you tell us more about that?
CLA: The A Is For Aphra Campaign has a similar goal to my own. Aphra Behn achieved an extraordinary body of work and remains an important historical figure, yet she’s not a household name.

The campaign organisers aim to have her celebrated publicly, and they’ve joined forces with the Canterbury Commemoration Society to get a bronze statue of this incredible woman erected in her hometown of Canterbury.

When I saw that this campaign had launched on social media, I felt I had to get in touch. They’ve kindly promoted my show in their newsletters, and after each performance I suggest people donate to the A is for Aphra Campaign to raise funds for the statue.

Here’s the donation link I feature in the programme for the show.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Did you always want to work in the arts world? How did you end up doing what you’re doing now?
CLA: I always wanted to make theatre from a very young age, but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that I started thinking of a career in acting. I always used to write plays and stories as a child – which were always the length of one exercise book! I had some very supportive teachers.

I then had a year out after A Levels and got a lead role in ‘The Love Of The Nightingale’ at The Old Rep in Birmingham, then I got a place at Bretton Hall, studying acting. I got a national outdoor Shakespeare tour and then an agent straight out of drama school.

I’ve worked pretty consistently since then in theatre, feature films, commercials, TV, audiobooks – you name it, I’ve acted in it. I also did an MA at RADA from 2009 to 2011. This brought together my acting with other skills I’d been developing in writing and directing.

In 2009 I started a theatre company with actor and co-artistic director Pradeep Jey. He directed ‘The Masks Of Aphra Behn’ and we’ve worked on numerous projects over the years.

Recently I’ve done a lot of plays with the Paul Taylor-Mills rep company, playing lead roles in many classic plays, including ‘California Suite’ by Neil Simon, ‘Hobson’s Choice’ by Harold Brighouse, ‘Handbagged’ by Moira Buffini, ‘Spider’s Web’ by Agatha Christie and many, many Alan Ayckbourn titles!

CM: As you mentioned, you’ve done a fair amount of screen work too: how does live performance compare?
CLA: Yes, I’ve worked on numerous feature films, TV shows and commercials. The basics are the same – motivation, given circumstances etc. But the technical aspects are very different.

I love working on screen, but there’s something special about the buzz of live performance that cannot be replicated.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career thus far?
CLA: I worked on a beautiful feature film, ‘Borley Rectory’ with Reece Shearsmith, about the ‘most haunted house in England’. It was shot entirely on green screen and animated on top of photographs in exquisite detail.

It screened at many festivals and won lots of awards, and the cast and creative team were wonderful to work with. It’s now screening on Netflix.

Also, I was in a revival of the 1950s play ‘Women Of Twilight’. It started at the White Bear – where I’m about to perform ‘The Masks Of Aphra Behn’! – and got such great reviews and so many sell-out shows that it transferred to the main space at Pleasance London.

Again, it was an amazing creative team and cast.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
CLA: I’d love to work at the National Theatre. It’s definitely my favourite London venue. Also, I’d love to get my teeth into a really challenging feature film or TV role. Something that would really stretch me. I’d also love to perform ‘The Masks Of Aphra Behn’ in a full run at the Edinburgh Festival, at the Pleasance or Assembly Rooms.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
CLA: I’ve got some more dates for ‘The Masks Of Aphra Behn’ after the White Bear performances on 29 and 30 Nov.

In February I return to perform at the Space Arts Centre in Docklands on 17 and 18 Feb, followed by the Brooke Theatre in Chatham on 22 Feb, which is next to the dockyards where a Dutch raid mentioned in the show took place, which is quite exciting.

I’m also on the eleventh draft of my new play ‘Woman Behind Glass’, to be produced by A Monkey With Cymbals and directed by Pradeep Jey. We’re looking to do an R&D of it in early 2023. It’s a ghost story about dementia and mental health. Watch this space!

‘The Masks Of Aphra Behn’ is on at The White Bear on 29 and 30 Nov, and at The Space on 17 and 18 Feb. See the White Bear website here to book tickets for the upcoming dates.

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