REVIEW: Venice Preserved at the RSC

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Michael Grady-Hall and Jodie McNee. Photo: Helen Maybanks/RSC

Venice Preserved, The Swan Theatre, until 7th September

So the President of the United States is in town, hobnobbing with the Establishment. Trump’s not on his own – he’s given jobs to his kids, as well as daughters Tiffany, Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, also clambering aboard the nepotism bandwagon are Eric and Don Jr – who happen to run the Trump Organisation, a company the President is supposed to have cut all ties from. Anyway there they all are chumming up with our unelected aristocrats. Meanwhile thousands protest on the streets, Parliament is overrun by an embarrassment of self-serving fools, and the climate catastrophe doomsday clock counts down…

John Hodgkinson. Photo: Helen Maybanks/RSC

What has all this got to do with Venice Preserved at the RSC in 2019? Everything. Depressingly enough.

Written by Thomas Otway in 1682, at a time when the Civil War and various overthrowing/dethroning/ assassinating plots abounded, the play speaks to Brexit Britain in quite an extraordinary way. ‘Relevancy’ may be an overused term but by golly this play has it by the gunpowder barrelful.

There may be something rotten in the state of Denmark, but it doesn’t compare to the play’s Venice location – a shadowy dank place where vapour rises up from a dark underbelly with the pongiest of pongs, and S&M practices prevail at the local courtesan’s pad.

Director Prasanna Puwanarajah has gone for ‘restoration noir’ (his term) and used his fondness for DC Comics’ gothicky Gotham and cult classic Bladerunner to conjure a film noir feel to the compelling drama, which he sets in the 1980s, and designer James Cotterill makes convincing. (The costumes – from indie chic to power-dressing shoulder pads – are a special delight.)

Les Dennis: Photo: Helen Maybanks/RSC

Venice Preserved is a ‘she tragedy’. Briefly, it tells the story of Belvidera who secretly marries Jaffeir against her father Priuli’s wishes. Dad is a senator – boo! – and seizes the loved-up couple’s property. Feeling the unfairness of it all Jaffeir falls for the revolutionary patter of his charming chum Pierre (who he adores in a weird sort of subservient way). Being an idealistic plonker Jaffeir then gives over (sort of accidentally) his beloved Belvidera to the revolutionaries who want to assasinate the ruling senators of Venice. Things swirl inexorably around the plughole before glugging downwards to the sewers and the play’s bitter culmination.

In one extraordinary scene senator Antonio – John Hodgkinson on blinding form – in S&M garb begs his dominatrix mistress Aquilina (a wonderfully stroppy Natalie Dew) to spit and kick him. He comes over like a naughty Etonian used to having his own way, and is both utterly hilarious and overwhelmingly horrendous. Remind you of anyone?

Michael Grady-Hall as Jaffeir captures his Orwellian vulnerableness very convincingly; while Stephen Fewell is a charismatic and cocksure Pierre. All eyes are on household name Les Dennis making his RSC debut, who plays Priuli like the competent stage veteran he is. Jodie McNee, as the she in the she-tragedy, Belvidera, gives a standout and truly transfixing performance.

So without giving away the ending, Venice was preserved but humanity paid a price. What cost Britain’s future? Who knows, but cough up for a theatre ticket to see this and you might just get a sneaky preview.