Emma Bentley talks to Director, Prasanna Puwanarajah about his new graphic novel inspired show at the RSC, working with ‘cool’ people and battling to make theatre more open for young people.
As a teenager who grew up on GCSE Drama trips to the RSC, The Swan has always felt like the most reverent of the three theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon. Fortunately, as I talk to Director, Prasanna Puwanarajah, I am hit with the strong message that he “wants to exclude no audience member” with his production of Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved.
With a title that sounds like it could indeed be a new Netflix series, and a poster designed by the Spanish graphic novel artist Coke Navarro, this is a sure-fire way to bring a new generation of audiences into the Midland’s theatre mecca. Ultimately though, the question for these younger audiences will be: is this production well worth swapping a night of watching ‘Insert Series of Choice here’ for?
Picture it. Venice. 1600s. But it looks like the eighties. Puwanarajah tells me we are in a world with “people who are fundamentally morally bankrupt, who have access to power that have no access to competence.” In the meantime, the women in their lives are bandied around like trophies, used and abused, all the time knowing that they have their own kind of power that the world is too ignorant to really see. Sound familiar?
On top of this already highly topical plot, Puwanarajah brings his own voice which he insists is “not cool at all,” or maybe just “accidentally cool.” It is his own eighties upbringing seeped in comic books which will bring the aesthetic and “darkness which cocoons” this production. He elaborates: “When I read the play it reminded me of a graphic novel texture, it was dark and shady and the world was nefarious and the people were morally ambiguous.” It was eight years ago that Puwanarajah came to Otway’s Restoration play, or Restoration Noir as he sees it, which can also be seen as an early “She-Tragedy” of the era. After a stint working on an edit of the text as the runner up for the James Menzies-Kitchen Young Directors award in 2011, he found that: “if I feel like it’s been said before or in a more interesting or human or available way then it goes.” Since then he has added back in some sections, noting that it came in “crystalline relevance” of where we are now politically.
Through collaborating with a team of highly skilled and undoubtedly very “cool” people, Puwanarajah will “inject a little slug of action thriller” into the rhythm of the production. Movement Director Polly Bennett, who has been in the eighties for a while after working with Rami Malek on Bohemian Rhapsody has choreographed a voguing routine. And Nina Dunn, the Video and Laser Designer has also catapulted the show into a space that is constantly shapeshifting by creating “basically a laser prism.” Puwanarajah excitedly tells me, “I think it’s called the Laser Diode DS 3000. We slung it up in the roof of The Other Place on a free afternoon and we all just sat there and tried to see what we could make it do.” He continues: “Nina’s worked out a way to allow theatrical creative projection mechanisms to talk to a machine from the eighties.” I don’t think you need to be a techno geek to get on board with that.
And if the spectacle of the laser prisms (or prisons, as sometimes they create scenes of incarceration) in the Swan isn’t tempting enough to make the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, according to Puwanarajah – “the play has an enormous heart.” He hopes that it is “what’s actually happening in there that might be of value to you spiritually” which will keep the audience on the edge of their seat. This could run the risk of sounding a bit “out there,” but in the way that he talks to me about the core of the show, I understand his aim. In simple terms, he tells me that it’s about “people who just fundamentally adore each other whose relationships collapse.” So, don’t expect the retro-futurist technological side of the show to dominate.
Along with the RSC’s 16-25 £5 ticket offer and £10 tickets for first-time theatregoers on Fridays, it’s Puwanarajah’s hope that Venice Preserved will be an experience that “wants to pull people in who have a question about theatre.” This is partly because he feels like an outsider himself: “I find it difficult to identify as an artist.” Coming from a person who has spoken so eloquently about his work, I find this hard to comprehend. He acknowledges: “There is a major battle in all the big theatres in this country to genuinely be in some kind of conversation with why some young people might not want to go to the theatre and what the specific offering of live performed stories is.” We discuss how a good place to start might be away from a play we study on an exam syllabus. Then “it doesn’t become about ‘ooh how did you do Banquo’s ghost?’ or ‘what are the witches like?’”
Although the play is mostly unknown to anyone unfamiliar with Restoration works, I’m relieved to hear that it has the approval of Emma Jude Harris, a Director and Dramaturg who specialises in feminist narratives. Harris, who Puwanarajah met whilst working on Absolute Hell at the National Theatre, apparently almost “fell over and said that’s one of my favourite plays” when he told her he would be directing it. At a glance, the plot seems pretty harrowing for the women: a secret marriage, a hostage situation and an attempted rape. But there is no shying away from Otway’s “fundamentally bleak” world. Through opening up the room to the women, Puwanarajah asked ultimately: “Is this like the world? Yes it is, well let’s be honest about that.”
He goes on to say vehemently that, “there are moments in the play where Belvedere feels like she’s in her own origin story as a superhero.” Now, that’s something I can get on board with and maybe even swap a night of Rick and Morty for.
Venice Preserved is playing at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 7 September. For more information and to book tickets, visit the RSC website.