Thomas Otway’s 1682 ‘political thriller’, Venice Preserv’d, may be on the earlier threshold of the long eighteenth century, but the play’s popularity was long lasting, and for much of the eighteenth century it was an oft-performed piece of tragic theatre. Like many forgotten works of the Restoration, it was surely time for Otway’s masterpiece to be revived and rejuvenated for a twenty-first-century audience. The RSC, with director Prasanna Puwanarajah at the helm, have certainly done just that.
Billed as a ‘Restoration Noir’, Venice Preserved (note the ‘e’) has been transplanted to an unapologetically anachronistic version of the 1980s; the set, costumes and video design reflect the influence of Sin City, cyberpunk and anime on the director’s vision. There is also a notable twenty-first-century feel to the play, with a prison cell made up of carefully placed lasers, whilst insider information and checks are made using Internet passwords as identifiers.
The play could be set anywhere, with the only allusions to the city state Venice appearing in Kevin N. Golding’s Duke, dressed in the corno ducale and opulent robes of the Doge of Venice, and the presence of a sewer centre-stage, through which objects such as a knife (later appearing as a murder weapon) are deposited, and which has characters of the rebel underworld appearing from it. Water is a recurring motif in this production. The sound of dripping and heavy rain are a constant presence, leaving characters cowering under umbrellas, or emerging soaked from a sewer’s depths. Whilst water is usually thought to denote cleansing and freedom, here its presence combines with the dimly lit stage and ominous foggy darkness to create a sense of unease which pervades the play.
Otway was heavily influenced by the political landscape in England during his lifetime. The play’s debut followed hot on the heels of the Popish Plot of 1678, where Catholics were heavily persecuted. The obvious anxiety caused by the false plot caused a divided England and Scotland, as anti-Catholic fervour mounted. Venice Preserved is full of political turmoil, oppression and mounting pressure on both the senators and political rebels, whose conflict makes up the core of the plot. Puwanarajah emphasises this with his masterful direction of the comic subplot. This features John Hodgkinson as an S-and-M-loving politician, Antonio, who enjoys being dominated by courtesan Aquilina (the fierce Natalie Dew). His black PVC suit and eagerness to wear a dog collar and lead are contrasted with Aquilina’s strength, as seen in the play’s closing moments as she follows him offstage, gun in hand. Whilst providing a sense of light relief, these scenes underscore the corruption and deceit of the Senate and its agents, and hint at the potential lampooning of our own twenty-first-century politicians. Guy Fawkes masks, notably seen in Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta (1982-5) and its film adaptation (2005), are worn by the rebels, not just as a sinister disguise, but also as a symbol of protest and fellowship. It is rather alarming then, when midway through the play the Senate appear wearing the same masks – but theirs are gilded gold.
The central plot revolves around Jaffeir (Michael Grady-Hall), a Venetian nobleman married to the beautiful Belvedira, played with feeling by Jodie McNee. Unfortunately for Jaffeir (despite saving Belvedira from drowning some years before) the pair’s secret marriage is discovered by Belvedira’s father, Priuli (Les Dennis of Family Fortunes fame). Due to this revelation, Priuli disowns both Belvedira and Jaffeir and seizes their property. Jaffeir’s closest friend and ally, Pierre (Stephen Fewell) has meanwhile joined a rebel plot to bring down the city’s senators, due to his distress at his mistress Aquilina’s trysts with the corrupt Antonio. After Pierre enlists Jaffeir’s loyalty to the cause, the rebel conspirators take Belvedira as a ‘hostage’ for Jaffeir’s loyalty at his own instigation, as he attempts to bring down the Senate – including, of course, Belvedira’s own father. This is a tragedy, so of course things don’t end happily. Attempted rape, murder and suicide all feature heavily, but it is the betrayal of the Senate that sends the play into a shocking downward spiral and causes untold misery.
The character who suffers the greatest misfortunes during the course of the play is not the hapless Jaffeir, but his strong yet simultaneously vulnerable wife, Belvedira. At the play’s original performance, it was only twenty years since women had been allowed to perform onstage in a theatre. The role was first performed by Elizabeth Barry, who was renowned for her prowess in tragic roles, and for whom Otway originally wrote the character (rumoured to be because of his unrequited love for her). McNee as Belvedira follows Barry’s tradition and offers a powerful performance. Her portrayal allows Belvedira to be the play’s voice of reason against the patriarchal dominance and insistence of the males within the play. After the oppressive culmination of the play’s events, the closing scenes are Belvedira’s. Her descent into madness ends with her poignant death, and it appears that, with the deaths of the rebels, peace may finally have fallen in Venice. That is, until we are reminded that the Senate and its tyrannical laws are victorious, and Venice remains oppressed without any hope of being freed.
Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway, directed by Prasanna Puwanarajah, is at the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon until 7 September 2019.