by Thomas Otway
Directed by Prasanna Puwanarajah
in repertoire 24 May – 7 September 2019
Reviewed by Andrew Whiffin
In tandem with their Restoration comedy The Provoked Wife, the RSC now offer us a Restoration tragedy, or ‘heroic’ play, Thomas Otway’s 1682 piece Venice Preserved. The title reflects the framework of the story, an unsuccessful attempt by discontented revolutionaries to overthrow the corrupt government of the city state of Venice, but Otway is more concerned with questions of individual loyalties.
Jaffeir (Michael Grady-Hall) has secretly married Belvedira, the daughter of a senator, Priuli, who has disinherited her as a result. His friend Pierre (Stephen Fewell) also has a grudge against a senator, Antonio, who uses his lover Aquilina as a prostitute when Pierre is away, and so he persuades Jaffeir to join a conspiracy to overthrow the state, which begins a series of moral tests for him: is he going to be loyal to his friend? To the rebels? To the state? To his wife? But the subsequent plot twists, as Jaffeir is made to give Belvedira to the revolutionaries as a hostage, liberates her and escapes with her, and is then persuaded to betray them to the Duke and senate, but only to secure their reprieve from death sentences (which are carried out anyway by the faithless authorities), become more and more implausible and harder to follow.
Director Prasanna Puwanarajah has based the look of his production on film noir and the 80s cyberpunk technological anarchist movement, and James Cotterill’s design gives us an electronic screen as a back wall, which morphs from a mosaic frieze in the Doge’s palace to a security surveillance monitor for the revolutionaries’ camp and then to a machine generating the manacles by which the enemies of the state are to be executed. Shadowy figures with umbrellas stride through the dark, rain-swept streets. Belvedira is imprisoned in a laser cell. It is undeniably stylish, but does not particularly help in making us feel the emotional charge of the pangs of conflicting loyalties.
An essay in the programme argues that it is a ‘she-tragedy’, with Belvedira at its heart, being used as a pawn by the warring men, subjected to near-rape by Steve Nicolson’s rough rebel leader Renault, and driven mad by the fate of her husband, and Jodie McNee makes her passionate and committed – though her Liverpudlian accent creates an odd sense of otherness about her in relation to her father and husband. Natalie Dew’s Aquilina is also a victim in some ways, but her characterisation as a dominatrix in the very funny scene of John Hogkinson’s lubricious Antonio paying her a visit for a spot of S&M doesn’t do much to elicit our sympathies.
In the end, it is not the most rewarding theatrical experience, but I fear that is not the fault of the production but the play.
Running time: 2 hrs 20 mins + 20 mins interval