August 7, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Venice Preserved (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre
Thomas Otway’s 1682 tragedy, part of a mini-season of Restoration plays in the Swan, is a depressing affair. Despite the large scale of its political plot, as a group of conspirators led by an ambassador band together to overthrow the Venetian state, its focus is on a three-way relationship between a man, his secret wife, and his best friend. Prasanna Puwanarajah – in his directorial debut for the RSC following a previous engagement as an actor – placed the focus squarely on the three central figures, creating an affecting production fuzzy on its politics, but clear on the emotional stakes of loyalty and betrayal.
Michael Grady-Hall played Jaffeir as an emotional and somewhat self-indulgent man-child, his immature approach to the world when his stable, sensible wife Belvidera (Jodie McNee) sang ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ to him to soothe him. At the production’s start, Jaffeir was out on the street, standing on a drain with a drip falling on him, holding a box of personal items as if a banker just thrown out onto the street, while anonymous people walked by under umbrellas. His encounter with Belvidera’s father Priuli (Les Dennis, of all people) revealed that Priuli, a senator, had orchestrated Jaffeir’s downfall, having found out that he had secretly married his daughter three years ago. The opening image was thus of a man, disenfranchised by his society and ripe for radicalisation.
Indeed, the obviousness of reading Jaffeir’s story in the light of contemporary narratives around disempowered young white men and the resentments that lead to acts of terrorism makes it surprising that Puwanarajah didn’t emphasise this. Jaffeir is no incel – his touching first meeting with Belvidera was beautifully tender and mutual, their love for one another transcending immediate circumstance – but Grady-Hall captured the petulance of a man who signs up to terrorism to revenge himself against his father-in-law, then allows the conspirators to hold his wife hostage, then betrays the conspirators in the interests of saving his own neck, then threatens to kill his wife when his friend is condemned to die. Jaffeir’s abysmal lack of priorities combined with his need for constant comfort and reassurance, which Belvidera worked hard to provide.
McNee’s Belvidera had her head entirely screwed on. While she was emotional too, she controlled her outbursts for her husband’s sake, and spend much of her time onstage trying to stabilise him, whether stroking his head while singing him a lullaby or putting his hand on her heart to ground him in the here-and-now. The patience she showed with him was a little frustrating at times in the light of Jaffeir’s trash actions, but McNee sold her devotion to the man.
The complication was provided by Pierre (Stephen Fewell), the disaffected naval officer who joined the rebels and persuaded Jaffeir to join his cause. Pierre’s grievances against the state had their own personal angle, he being in a relationship with a courtesan (Natalie Dew) who was in turn being continually patronised by the senator Antonio (John Hodgkinson). But from his first appearance in full dress uniform, Pierre was more clearly aligned with the politics of the state, and managed his double responsibility of standing with the rebels while also defending the discontent Jaffeir from them when he showed his disaffection. As the play moved into the second half, the tension between the two of them became the main emotional focus.
All of this was set against a wildly inconsistent aesthetic. The world of Venetian society was cyberpunk for absolutely inexplicable reasons, introduced in a long dance sequence with neon-clad dancers and pounding music. Belvidera’s prison was beautifully designed, constructed out of lasers that pinned her to the centre of the stage, and the execution device for Pierre was an intriguing machine with three chains leading up to a circular mechanism with flashing lights. Yet this was integrated with clashing aesthetics of generic fascism (the jack-booted soldiers of the Venetian court), generic contemporary wear (Jaffeir as banker, Pierre’s marine uniform), generic fetish gear for Aquilina’s brothel, and the very specific use of Guy Fawkes masks for the rebels. The use of the specific attire of the Occupy movement for this generic rebellion was already a little glib, but when the Venetian senate arrived wearing gold versions of the same masks, the symbol seemed drained of anything meaningful, if not actively suggesting that protesters against a system are simply poor relations of the upholders of the system.
Notwithstanding the incoherence of the design, James Cotterill, Jack Knowles and Nina Dunn’s combined work at least looked fantastic. The design of the rebel base, with schematics projected onto the wall and a rebel scanning IDs to pull up identities, captured the sense of an underground movement, and Steve Nicolson’s fabulously mulleted conspirator Renault, Isabel Adomakoh Young’s dreadlocked Spinosa, and Alison Halstead’s de factor leader Bedamar led a motley and diverse crew who contrasted markedly with the uniformly dressed senators that they were rising up against. The tension between Jaffeir and Belvidera was occasioned by Renault’s attempted rape of the latter, though this was not seen.
In the comic subplot, Hodgkinson excelled as the hilarious Antonio, without sacrificing the sinister entitlement of this senator, seen casually picking out Dew’s Aquilina and waving wads of cash in her face. Antonio refused to be put off entering Aquilina’s rooms, despite her refusal to see him, and the long S&M game that he made her play – with him trying out a series of submissive animals and being repeatedly rebuffed before she ejected him – kept ramping up the indignity, culminating in him pulling off his suit to reveal a PVC skin-suit beneath. Later, while preparing a speech, he got an audience member to prompt him from a printed version, and when she corrected him quite sharply Hodgkinson offered a lovely bit of improvisation around his arousal by her strictness. When Aquilina in her turn held a knife to his throat to tell him to save PIerre’s life, he was again turned on in his fear, ejaculating helplessly into his own trousers before leaving the stage, unhumiliated by his defencelessness.
The helplessness of the main plot ultimately reduced all the characters to reaction rather than action. In an extended wordless sequence, Jaffeir broke Belvidera out of the laser prison, though she had to do half the work in overpowering and killing the guard, who she stabbed in the eye before they finished him off together by strangling him. However, as Jaffeir turned on Belvidera and put his hands around her own throat, the violence began taking over. Pierre in his turn headbutted Jaffeir when the latter was freed for his information, and Priuli slapped his daughter in public. Over and over, bonds of love and loyalty became physical blows and threats, and always exacerbating the divisions.
In the end, violence came to offer some kind of resolution. Pierre and Jaffeir finally came together in death as Pierre persuaded Jaffeir to stab him rather than allow him to be executed publicly; Jaffeir stabbed himself at the same time, and the two died together. The last we saw of Antonio and Aquilina was Antonio clicking his fingers for the courtesan to follow him, and she drawing a gun and cocking it as she followed him out. And after what seemed like the finale – with the two dead friends rising and dancing – the stage was left to McNee alone to offer a tour de force closing soliloquy as Belvidera went mad and died. Combining broken snatches of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’, repeated pleas to her dead husband, and shivering in the cold, she stood under the same drip that Jaffeir had stood under at the start of the play, eventually lying on the floor as she muttered, and finally lying still. It’s one of the bleakest ends I’ve seen for a tragedy in some time, as if Hamlet decided to end with Ophelia, and McNee’s affecting, disconcerting performance made for a devastating conclusion.