So it’s Thomas Otway who wrote Venice Preserved, not John Otway. My mistake. He’s the guy from Aylesbury who wrote Cor Baby That’s Really Free. Very easy to get the two confused. Actually, it makes you wonder what kind of person was writing plays in 1682 that weren’t Restoration Comedies. Thomas Otway must have had a hard life. Indeed, although he was apparently the talk of the town after the success of Venice Preserved, three years later he died in penury, allegedly choking to death on a bun which he purchased after someone gave him a guinea in the street when they discovered who he was. It shouldn’t happen to a playwright.
Venice Preserved is, I think it’s fair to say, rather an unpleasant play. Whilst it was perennially popular for its first 150 years or so, its attraction died away with the Victorian era; too dark and comfortless for those snowflakes, I suspect. This is the first British major production of the play for 35 years; and Prasanna Puwanarajah’s production pulls no punches when it comes to shedding light on some of the darker parts of human existence.
When we consider how people are today brainwashed into fighting for a cause like Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups, we’ve a tendency to believe that this kind of radicalisation is something new. However, Venice Preserved shows us that it’s a concept as old as the hills. History tells us, from Roman times to the present day, that charismatic leaders with ulterior motives can bluff their way into the public’s affections and then lead them all on to mass destruction. Otway presents us with another version of that simple truth.
The mild – if slightly eccentric – Jaffeir is convinced by his soldier friend Pierre to join the revolution against the failed city state of Venice. Pierre’s motivation is driven by personal animosity against the corrupt Senator Antonio, who has sexual gallivanting sessions with Pierre’s own mistress, Aquilina. Jaffeir, however, is simply swept away by Pierre’s charisma. When Jaffeir offers his beloved wife Belvidera as a hostage, to prove his commitment to the cause, it’s pretty obvious things have got out of hand. True, he comes to his senses when she narrowly escapes rape by the mercenary Renault, and the pair of them attack and kill her prison guard to set her free. But he cuts a very pathetic figure when trying to explain to her that he did it all because of “his friend”. Clearly there was need for a Restoration version of the Prevent programme.
Alongside all the political intrigue, two other plots delve into the characters of the story. The enmity continues to grow between Priuli, a senator and Belvidera’s father, and his son-in-law Jaffeir, who he insists “stole” her from him, even though Jaffeir saved her from drowning. His is the resentment and selfishness of the lone parent who refuses to accept that their children are growing up. And there’s the ludicrous relationship of senator Antonio, Otway’s satire on the character of the real-life Earl of Shaftesbury, with the courtesan Aquilina. He prefers it when she’s in a charge, getting his kicks in fetish gear and pleading to be spat on and kicked in the groin. Whilst on the face of it these scenes are the equivalent of Carry On Restoration, there’s something incredibly awkward and distasteful – even though it may appear strangely delicious – about seeing the sexual peccadilloes of the high and mighty revealed so graphically. Antonio is like a restoration comedy character transplanted into a sea of tragedy; I’m not surprised that Bowdlerized versions of the play in the 19th century completely removed the character of Antonio, and that Aquilina was only mentioned in passing.
At the end of the day, people like Jaffeir and Pierre are mere puppets. Promised safety if they grass on the names of all the conspirators, they’re still sent to their deaths and Belvidera is left to die in mental torment. In a touching scene, just before he dies, Jaffeir gives the priest Belvidera’s love token, that he’s been carrying around all the time, asking him to make sure she receives it. But once he’s dead the priest simply nicks Pierre’s ring, chucks the token in the gutter, and wanders off. Used and abused; there’s no trust in Venice. The City State may be preserved, but unless you have status, you’re nothing.
Prasanna Puwanarajah attributes his noir style for this production to his early interest in cyberpunk films and cartoons of the 1980s. This initially put me off; as I have very little interest or knowledge of such works, I assumed that this production somehow wouldn’t be for me. However, if that genre does influence this production, it didn’t impact on me. For me this was a classic presentation of a centuries-old drama, essentially tragic with a few light moments to break up the darkness.
Designer James Cotterill’s set suggests a courtyard with just a manhole in the centre from where bedraggled fugitives can emerge, drenched from the sewer; by contrast there’s an elaborate decorated screen above onto which are projected maps of Venice, Pierre’s execution wheel and Aquilina’s social media page. Blue lasers flood down from the ceiling to represent Belvidera’s cell, bringing a little fantasy magic to the stage. Costumes range from the lavish ermine of the Duke, the sharp business suits of the senators, and Pierre’s splendid military uniform to Jaffeir’s stuck-in-the-seventies look and Aquilina’s moderately dominatrix garb.
There’s a star turn from Jodie McNee as Belvidera, full of emotion and sorrow, showing strength and vulnerability at the same time, which is some feat; an ordinary character who shows true heroism when called for. She’s matched by Michael Grady-Hall’s Jaffeir, a classic underachiever, easily influenced; an innocent abroad who takes what’s precious to him for granted and falls prey to wiser powers. It was unfortunate that there was a sightline issue with the jailer’s death towards the end of the first act; I would imagine that a good third of the house would not have been able to work out exactly how Jaffeir and Belvidera did him in – I felt like that was a visual milestone of the play that I was sorry to miss.
Another superb performance comes from Stephen Fewell as Pierre, cutting a dashing military figure, a fascinating blend of the manipulative and the trusting but for whom nobility comes first. Les Dennis’ Priuli comes across as a petulant actuary but it’s a very effective characterisation; Steve Nicolson is a lowlife rogue of a Renault; Kevin N Golding makes for a suitably authoritarian Duke, and there’s solid support from Alison Halstead as the hearty Spanish ambassador and Carl Prekopp as the conspirator Eliot. And Natalie Dew conveys Aquilina’s passionate nature and embittered fury with appropriate fervour.
But the scene-stealing performance comes from the ever-reliable John Hodgkinson as Antonio, pompously respectable on the outside and a right little raver on the inside, visibly turned on by the merest threat of discipline. He’s the source of any guffaws or audible cringes that the audience can’t hold back.
At almost two-and-three-quarter hours long, this does at time feel a little ploddy and a little repetitive. The text has been cut in part but I think it could do with further pruning. It’s a play that illuminates and informs, but, in my mind, not at all a likeable play. But it’s a fascinating opportunity to see something rarely seen today but which was never out of the West End two hundred years ago!
Production photos by Helen Maybanks