REVIEW: ‘Venice Preserved’, Swan Theatre, RSC

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Prasanna Puwanarajah directs a new version of Thomas Otway’s Restoration political thriller, ‘Venice Preserved’.

In the shadows of Venice, a dark conspiracy is formed. 

A group of discontented rebels plan to revolt against the Senate, shedding as much blood as possible in the process. 

Jaffeir and Belvidera are caught up the conspiracy, and loyalties are questioned as Jaffeir risks life, love and honour to prove whose side he is on.

‘Venice Preserved’ is a thrillingly high-powered production – intense, graphic, brutal – unflinchingly uncovering the sadism and corruption of a world in which politics and politicians tyrannise and oppress.

Its business rebellion, revolt, revolution and revenge, this production examines the consequences of what happens when “our senators cheat the deluded people with a show of liberty” for too long, and what happens when those people fight back.

A political thriller set in the modern day, over 400 years after it was written, the play has an alarming relevance to the state of the world today, and is therefore hugely compelling, and deeply unnerving, for a modern day audience who can see in it a symmetry between that time and our own. This production, brilliantly directed, feels inherently modern and completely current, and therefore speaks to audiences so evocatively.

Michael Grady-Hall is an intense, impassioned Jaffier, sympathetic to the rebel’s cause, but not to their methods. He hates the Senate, and joins his friend Pierre in the fight against them. When the rebels doubt him, he stakes Belvidera’s life in a desperate attempt to gain their trust. In a world where loyalties are divided and trembling, this seems to him to be his only option. After their escape, and his betrayal, he cannot live with himself, says that he cannot allow Belvidera to live, when the bargain has not been met. 

Jodie McNee gives a heartfelt, moving, blazing performance as Belvidera. Deeply in love with her husband Jaffeir, she is heartbroken when he risks her life, and she is subsequently held prisoner by the rebels, subject to the unsolicited and unwanted advances of Steve Nicolson’s thuggish Renault. Though she tries to remain strong, she is rendered mentally weak by the end of the production, having suffered great loss, and begins talking to imagined versions of her father Priuli and Jaffeir, before dropping to the floor in a tragic fit of convulsion.

Stephen Fewell’s impressive Pierre captures the disillusionment of a soldier who, no longer of a mind to fight for the state that has not served him well despite his years of faithful service, becomes so disgruntled as to join the rebel forces against the state. Particularly active in the art of conspiracy, Pierre is punished by the state for his treachery. There exists a brotherly affection between good friends Pierre and Jaffeir which, once forgotten, is never lost, with a touching show of forgiveness, and one last act of defiance, rounding off their lives.

John Hodgkinson’s BDSM-loving, latex-wearing Antonio takes great pride in declaring: “I am a Senator”. Imbued with a sense of entitlement, Antonio believes he can do anything he wishes, and that his position will support this. Though he pretends to be a submissive puppy when in the company of his mistress Aquilina, his wealth and status ensure that he is powerful. When Aquilina asks him what he is good for, he replies with exclamations of his wealth and position. Without the two, he would indeed be good for nothing, and yet, because of these two, he arrogantly believes this of others who are not as fortunate as he.

Natalie Dew’s Aquilina is dominant and and spirited. Though she loathes Antonio, she does his bidding (by making him do hers) in return for money. With an ever-increasing strength of will, however, she soon takes matters into her own hands. 

Les Dennis is harsh and unforgiving as Priuli, Senator and father to Belvidera, who now no longer speaks to her since Jaffeir ‘stole’ her from him, and the two ran off together to be wed. 

During the production, the rebels don masks commonly referred to today as ‘Guy Fawkes masks’ – fitting, given the parallels of conspiracy, and the frequent talk of burning. The rebels seeks to “Burn, burn to nothing. But let Venice burn hotter than all the rest”. These masks have come to be associated with general protest and, used in the book and subsequent film ‘V for Vendetta’, there could not be a more appropriate method of covering one’s face, of de-individualising the self, for a group whose vendetta is against the Senate itself, the ruling elite. 

The flames of rebellion set this production alight, spreading like wildfire throughout its characters. Interestingly, however, there is a subtle but noticeable drip that rains down from above, onto a sewer grate below. The flames of rebellion are at war with the flood waters of the Senate, that threaten to douse, to extinguish, to drown any and all uprisings. When Jaffeir and Belvidera escape the hands of the rebels, they do so through the sewers, and are drenched when they arrive at the House of the Senate, as though washed, cleansed, of rebellion. Thus continues this battle between fire and water, between rebel and Senator, and so is the very nature of our world.

Belividera is driven into a state of madness by the end of the production, looking to the audience for support in a harrowing display of helplessness. Her body is wet, cold, and pale, as though she has been drowning. She frequently speaks of waters, and of being dragged to the bottom, and it seems she has lost in the battle against the “rough tide of power”.

At the end of the production, in a swift but certain move, a priest removes the wedding ring from the finger of Jaffeir, and places it on one of his own. Could it be that he has simply put it there for safekeeping, until he can safely pass it to Belvidera? Though we may hope this to be the case, it is more likely that this clever more gives us a glimpse at a similar corruption that exists within the world’s religious leaders. 

As with all RSC productions, there is a purity to the storytelling, and this production is certainly no exception. Basking in an “eternal truth”, the production champions truth in its bold, open portrayal of the play’s themes, eternal in that this Restoration play applies today, and very likely and tragically, will continue to apply for some time, if not forever.

‘Venice Preserved’ unmasks the bloodshed, barbarism and brutality of a world that totters on the edge of a dangerous precipice, the scales tipped in favour of dictatorship over democracy, as the prospect of freedom and liberty is smothered by the smoke and mirrors of the political world, obscuring and embellishing truth, as the flame of rebellion and revolution are extinguished.

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