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Theatre review Venice Preserved, Swan Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon

The conflict between love and honour in Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy gets a modish yet uneven update by the RSC

IF THE RSC was seeking to complement its current production of Vanbrugh’s popular Restoration comedy The Provoked Wife with a tragedy of the period, they would have relatively little choice.

Thomas Otway’s 1682 play Venice Preserved has been virtually the only Restoration tragedy to maintain its stage popularity since its own time.

Although the play shares the genre’s characteristic mixture of rhetorical heroic language and thematic conflicts between love and honour — straining the patience of audiences in our more prosaic age —  its subject of the plotting to overthrow a repressive regime has a more familiar ring.

Jaffier has married Belvidera against the wishes of her senator father Priuli and, consequently cast off into potential poverty, he joins with his bosom friend Pierre and his band of rebels to destroy the Venetian establishment.

When Belvidera learns her father is to be one of the targets, she persuades her husband to betray the cause leading to inevitable disaster for all.

Prasanna Puwanarajah’s freewheeling production sets the action in what the programme terms a cyberpunk “dizzying mash-up of styles” which, it’s claimed, “caught the world’s attention” in the 1980s.  

This is a darkly suggestive Gotham City Venice where it rains persistently, requiring Jodie McNee’s Belvidera to wear a raincoat even in her bedroom and where indecipherable digital images and numbers are intermittently projected.

If the production gets lost in a frenetic first half, it’s nevertheless enlivened by a subplot when Antonio, another senator, has a comically raunchy BDM session with Pierre’s girlfriend, the courtesan Aquilina.

In the senate chamber court scenes after the interval, the director allows the play to speak for itself and something of the emotional force of Otway’s blank verse registers as Jaffier finds a resolution to his agonies.

In a suicidal closure with homoerotic undertones, he first stabs Pierre to free him from the tortures of the scaffold before killing himself, while the much put-upon Belvidera conforms to type and goes mad.

The cast handle the play’s operatic style with energy, though at times the intensity of feelings and language become disengaged.

Runs until September 8, box office: rsc.org.uk.

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