Stage Door Review

Stratford-upon-Avon, GBR: Venice Preserved

Friday, May 31, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Thomas Otway, directed by Prasanna Puwanarajah

Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

May 30-September 7, 2019

Pierre: “Curse on the common good that's so protected,

Where every slave, that heaps up wealth enough 

To do much wrong, becomes the lord of right!”

Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved from 1682 is often considered the last of the great English verse tragedies. It harks back to the line of tragedies in English begun by Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe in the 1580s with particular echoes of the doom-laden Jacobean tragedies of John Webster, Thomas Middleton and John Ford. It was one of the most popular English tragedies from its premiere in 1682 into the 1830s with a series of great actors vying to play its principal roles. 

The fact that the play deals with a terrorist plot against a corrupt government and features characters involved in BDSM only makes the play feel remarkably modern and relevant. Those very factors, however, are what led the play into obscurity during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Thankfully, the Royal Shakespeare Company has revived this late masterpiece in a terrific production led by Prasanna Puwanarajah which ought to help rescue the play from its undeserved obscurity.

The play’s central character is Jaffeir (Michael Grady-Hall), an impoverished nobleman who has secretly married Belvidera (Jodie McNee), the daughter of the pompous Venetian senator Priuli (Les Dennis). Although Jaffeir once saved Belvidera’s life, Priuli is so enraged by the marriage that he continues to persecute Jaffeir and, as the play opens, has just had his goods seized.

Jaffeir is not the only citizen of Venice with a complaint against its rulers. Jaffeir’s friend Pierre (Stephen Fewell), a former soldier and defender of Venice, is angered because his beloved Aquilina (Natalie Dew) has been forced by the aged senator Antonio (John Hodgkinson) into prostituting herself to live. He tells Jaffeir of a secret group he belongs to that has plans to overthrow the Senate and asks Jaffeir to join them.

Pierre brings Jaffeir to a meeting of the conspirators but they are suspicious that Jaffeir may be a spy. To prove he is not he allows the group to take Belvidera hostage until their plot is complete. However, while she is hostage the group’s leader, the firebrand Renault (Steve Nicolson) has attempted to rape Belvidera. When she tells Jaffeir of this, he is so outraged that he is persuaded by Belvidera to go to the Senate and reveal the plot while pleading for mercy for Pierre. At this point we know there is no way the play will end well for Jaffeir or any of the conspirators.

The play’s general plot recalls the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 planned by Robert Catesby, who sought the assistance of explosives expert Guy Fawkes, in killing James I and blowing up the House of Lords. The play is also informed by the then recent Popish Plot of 1678-81 fabricated by Titus Oates who claimed there was a conspiracy to kill Charles II. Though the plot was revealed to be a hoax, at least 22 men were executed for their involvement in it. Oates was arrested and imprisoned for sedition.

Otway’s audience had lived through the fear of a conspiracy that proved to be false and therefore could recognize Otway’s depiction of the rhetoric of anti-government conspirators. Over time, however, the anti-government speeches by Pierre and the violently nihilistic speeches by Renault came to be heavily censored when the play was staged. Later audiences were also not comfortable with the BDSM banter between Antonio and Aquilina to the point that those two characters were entirely excised from the play and with them the play’s only comic relief.

Puwanarajah has edited the play slightly to allow Belvidera rather than her father the final words, but otherwise all the formerly offensive political and sexual language has been restored and this is partly what makes the play seem so surprisingly modern. The play is, after all, about a group of domestic terrorists who have gathered because of their individual grievances with the government. The idealistic Pierre tries to paint the group’s action as a noble cause, but when we hear Renault speak we see that the destruction of the present order is his only interest: “How lovely the Adriatic whore, / Drest in her Flames, will shine! devouring Flames! / Such as shall burn her to the watery bottom / And hiss in her Foundation”. He has no vision of what happens after the destruction.

The programme for Venice Preserved speaks of plans to relate the design to Japanese manga and to film noir. Fortunately, few of these ideas have influenced the actual look of the play. Aquilina is dressed in retro-1940s style by James Cotterill to look like the character Rachel in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The conspirators wear stylized Guy Fawkes masks as they do in James McTeigue’s film V for Vendetta (2005) based on the 1982 British graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The conspirators hold Belvidera not in a conventional prison cell but in a pyramidal space bounded by force fields delineated by laser beams. 

Except for these examples, the play is simply presented in modern dress with the Doge (Kevin N. Golding) appearing once in Renaissance costume but otherwise in a business suit. The production is thus a rare example of a director so intent on telling a story clearly that his earlier concepts for presenting the story luckily survive only in isolated remnants.

Puwanarajah has given the play the feeling of a headlong plunge into doom so common in Jacobean drama but so unusual in Restoration tragedy where ideals of heroism and sentimentality often spoil for us moderns any true experience of tragedy. With Venice Preserved Puwanarajah is making his RSC directing debut and many of his cast are also making their RSC debuts. Yet, Puwanarajah has so galvanized them with his direction that you would never know they had not long worked together as a troupe.

Chief of the play’s complex roles is that of Jaffeir. As Michael Grady-Hall plays him Jaffeir is a basically good man who has been worn down by misuse into weakness. He honours bonds of love and friendship but these bonds easily cause him to be led by others. Jaffeir is like an antiheroic version of Coriolanus – first persuaded to fight against Venice by his friend Pierre, then persuaded to save Venice by his wife. In both cases Grady-Hall’s Jaffeir seeks only to do what is good, but he lives in a world where few people are good and goodness is not rewarded. Grady-Hall gives a passionate performance that shows how Jaffeir gradually comes to see that dying well may be the only alternative to living in a society that is so corrupt.

Stephen Fewell is ideally cast as Pierre. He embodies the strictness of bearing and the concentration of thought of a military man along with righteous indignation when ethics and his service to the state are ignored. Fewell ably projects the idealism that wins Jaffeir over to his cause but also blinds him to the misconduct of the conspirators. Fewell could not present a greater contrast than the proud soldier he shows Pierre to be at the start of the play versus the broken man he has become by the end.

Jodie McNee gives a powerful performance as Belvidera, a young woman perpetually at odds with the world around her and calmed only by the love of Jaffeir. When all hope of that love is gone, McNee’s Belvidera seems psychologically to implode in the disturbing, remarkably modern final scene of the play.

Natalie Dew and John Hodgkinson happen to play a couple in John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, the play that runs in repertory sharing much of the cast as Venice Preserved. Dew lends Aquilina a barely-veiled hatred of the world and of Antonio in particular that could hardly be farther removed from the her demure and witty Bellinda in Vanbrugh. Similarly, Hodgkinson’s kinky, odiously unctuous Antonio in Otway is the very opposite of the elegant, eminently reasonable Heartfree in Vanbrugh.

Les Dennis is best known as a comedian in the UK, but you would never know that from the nastiness he gives Priuli, Belvidera’s father. This makes Priuli’s melting when Belvidera attempts a reconciliation all the more affecting as the old man finally regains the humanity that self-imposed rigidity has almost banished.

Steve Nicolson, who plays the Rasor in The Provoked Wife, a servant who finally clears up the characters’ misunderstandings, her plays Renault as a man little better than a thug who seems to have bullied his way to become head of the conspirators. He makes Renault’s speech inciting complete anarchy chilling in itself and in its contemporary analogues.

Under Puwanarajah’s insightful direction, Venice Preserved has so much to say to a modern audience it should not sink back into obscurity as long as people still value free speech. Its portrait of domestic terrorism and how people can be drawn to it is painfully accurate as is its portrait of how conflicting ideologies can potentially tear a relationship apart. The fact that a play from 1682 should still feel so relevant now only demonstrates, as do all classic plays, that circumstance we may think of as new are really only the latest iterations of tensions that have always existed in society. This revival of Venice Preserved is important not just because it reveals the power in an unjustly neglected masterpiece but because the play itself helps us better understand the contradictions in the dangerous world we live in. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) The conspirators in Venice Preserved; Michael Grady-Hall as Jaffeir and Jodie McNee as Belvidera; Stephen Fewell as Pierre; Jodie McNee as Belvidera. © 2019 Helen Maybanks. 

For tickets, visit www.rsc.org.uk.