Stratford Upon Avon
Venice Preserved: Thomas Ottway
RSC, The Swan
Runs: 4h.45m, one interval,
Box Office: 01789331111
Review: Rod Dungate, 6th June 2019
Thomas Ottway’s Venice Preserved is a relatively early Restoration play. However, rather than reflecting the recently imported French styles of behaviour, it examines the politics of his day . The story centres around young Jaffier and his relationships with his wife and, Belvidera and his close friend, Pierre. They become closely involved in a serious plot of social revolutionaries to overthrow Venice’s corrupt government. The parallels between Ottway’s Venice world and his Britain of the day are clear. In addition, director Prasanna Puwanarajah, has shifted the entire action to 1980s Britain – the time when Thatcher was in her prime and divisions between rich and poor, the empowered and the powerless, were vast.
It is no surprise that within a tragedy of Ottway’s period there is a brooding presence of death; however, this can become transparent to our 21st Century eyes, and the parallels of Ottway’s play to our current situation are powerful.
Ottway weaves this themes of power, duty, responsibility, governance, love into a complex tapestry. There are occasional longeurs but, for the most part, his writing is powerful.
As the protagonist, Jaffier, Michael Grady-Hall gives a warm and engaging performance. However, there are lapses in his vocal control and he does not always embody his text. He is at his best in the scenes with his wife, Belvidera; Jodie McNee shows herself to be strong and totally in control of what she is saying. Jaffier’s scene with his friend Pierre, Stephen Fewell, just before Pierre’s execution is marvellous. Fewell proves himself to be a fine actor, and Grady-Hall also rises to this peak. Ottway’s writing is at its considerable height, too.
John Hodgkinson brings some welcome humour as corrupt Senator, Antonio; his comedy is broadly drawn, but with consummate skill he does not lose sight of the corruption of this character in all its manifestations – he merges it all into a satisfying whole.
Puwanarajah directs with thoughtfulness and the transfer to 80s Britain works well. That said, Puwanarajah doesn’t know where to stop with this and the production style frequently feel indulgent and self-regarding; they play’s natural rhythm is lost and forward momentum slows.
The RSC offers us a valuable opportunity to see this intriguing play. Venice Preserved looks back to the political dramas of the Renaissance playwrights and forward to the plays of our own time; it is also a strong play in its own right.
(Full credits to follow)
Production image: Helen Maybanks