Despite its immense contemporary popularity, Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved is a piece that hasn’t appeared on our stages for a number of years. Admittedly, it comes from a potentially difficult period of English theatre: somewhere in between Shakespeare and John Gay. Long enough after the Bard to be distinguishably different, but not so long that the theatrical tropes of the English Renaissance had stopped being felt all together. Nevertheless, it’s a dramatic maelstrom whose power to draw us in seems to be no more in atrophy than its themes antique: the hot whips of revolutionary indignation stirred by a corrupt government; the devastation of being torn between friend and lover; and the grave reality of the wives and daughters caught in the riptides of patriarchal discourse. Prasanna Puwanarajah and the RSC’s effort at drawing together such evocative themes rightly merits high praise, as Otway’s Restoration tour de force deserves rediscovery.
Described as a prototypical ‘she-tragedy’, and so soon after women were first allowed on-stage in 1660, it is intriguing that Otway’s 1682 play contains only two named female roles: the streetwise Aquilina, energetically captured by Natalie Dew, a Greek courtesan who resorts to sleeping with the sexually esoteric senator, Antonio—a barnstorming John Hodgkinson—and the linchpin, Belvidera. Jodie McNee conveys her character’s stoicism with vulnerable intensity, and her unlikely strength of will is magnified against Michael Grady-Hall’s suitably restless, diminutive Jaffeir. The couple’s dynamic is a crucial factor in this production’s success, their tenderness and sincerity lays the groundwork for its unexpectedly sudden disintegration. In a sometimes verbose piece, resonances of gesture and McNee and Grady-Hall’s ability to react to each other’s bodies allows the audience to read their relationship in visual form; almost everything we need to know is writ large in their physicality.
Images of water seep through this production, and Puwanarajah’s chosen leitmotif is endorsed by Otway’s original text. Together they draw on the canals of Venice itself, incongruent rain in a stereotypically sunny tourist destination, tears by turns resolute and despairing, and the Elizabethan association of water and the female sex. Even Joe Archer and Ben Walker’s sparingly played guitar seems to bleed into the air. At its best, this production’s soundtrack gives the effect of being relayed through a liquid body, fluid and distorted.
The only element that jars is Puwanarajah’s ‘Restoration noir’, cyberpunk spin, although it never really kicks in. The logic behind it, however, is sound: as the programme explains, cyberpunk ‘speaks not only of the plight but the rise of the individual, and the importance of personal connections within the questionable morality of rebellion and societal oppression.’ Even so, James Cotterill’s minimalist set, apparently a soaked Venetian street with a drain symbolically in pride of place, seems to clash with the occasional burst of outright rave lighting and music. Similarly, Sian Harris’ 80s/90s costumes (with Les Dennis’ totally convincing Priuli arguably wearing John Major’s actual glasses) don’t totally cohere with Puwanarajah’s Blade Runner-esque vision, probably never more vividly than when we see senators and doge in period capes and regalia, incongruently draped over box-suits. The overall effect decentres us and rather than setting the scene, dislocates it.
This aside, there is a great deal to take from Puwanarajah’s Venice Preserved. Although a consummate writer, Otway is not Shakespeare, of whom Stratford audiences are fed a sure staple diet. Those who hold forth gratuitously on the parallels between the febrile political atmosphere of Otway’s London, and today’s Brexit turmoil, risk underestimating the enterprise of reviving this somewhat neglected thriller. Though it is doubtlessly true that Otway’s play resonates beyond the universalism of theme, making a success of it might not be as easy as it seems. The cast and creatives at the RSC give a powerful showing, and Puwanarajah’s innovative, if slightly baffling, reading opens a new dimension to Otway’s umbral, waterlogged tragedy.
Venice Preserved is playing The Swan Theatre until 7 September. For more information and tickets, visit the RSC website.