Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway at RSC

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this performance. I knew it had received some good reviews but I haven’t been very well and couldn’t be bothered to read them or much of the blurb I’ve received from RSC by email.

The play is a restoration tragedy written in the late 17th century at a time of political uncertainty and upheaval. I can understand why the RSC thought it might be a good time to stage it!

The plot isn’t particularly complicated:

  • Girl weds man her father disapproves of
  • They live happily for 3 years when everything goes wrong and they lose everything
  • Man asks father for help and is refused
  • In his anger man joins group of malcontents threatening to overthrow the senate, handing over his wife as surety for his untried loyalty
  • Wife’s jailer tries to rape wife
  • Man and wife turn states evidence on promise of clemency from senate
  • Senate break their promise and execute man and his friends
  • Wife is left alone to go mad and die

I liked the staging and the costumes for this production. The decaying grandeur of the Venice I remember visiting in my teens was well conjured up with the set: I kept expecting bits to drop off the screen/mosaic that hung from the musician’s gallery.

The costumes were a great evocation of the 1980s. At the beginning, when people were rushing around the stage like commuters in the rain, my heart skipped at the remembered sense of anticipation and excitement when I caught a glimpse of someone dressed exactly like a forgotten crush from my late teenage years. At Aquilina’s nightclub I could pick out the clothes in styles I wore back in those times.

Weaving memories into the fabric of the play certainly helped me to feel that this play was set in familiar territory; a place I knew and could understand.

The first revelation in the acting department was Les Dennis. I expected that the cheesy game show host persona would intrude whilst watching him in this play. Actually, it was until there was a pause just after he’d left the stage that the thought pinged into my head “oh, that was Les Dennis”. Hat’s off to him for having reinvented himself.

Jodie McNee, as Belvidera, and Michael Grady-Hall, as Jaffeir, both acted their roles well. You understood the depth of love they felt and the mixed joy, angst and pain it caused. My problem is that whilst I understood this depth I didn’t feel it was for each other. For all the physical contact they had with each other there was just no spark between them, no sense of deep connection.

John Hodgkinson and Natalie Dew seemed to be having great fun with their parts providing the light relief to the general gloom of the play.

Did I leave really caring about the fate of the characters in the play? No. But I did come away thinking about what it says about where we, the UK, is as a political nation right now. There is a quote in the programme that says “the only truly successful way to escape disillusion during the civil wars was to get killed in them”. I’m not advocating death but I do think we’re a nation riven apart, will disillusionment on all sides and a sense the main political parties will do what is expedient to keep power. What is the right thing? Who is prepared to do it? Who knows?

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