RSC Swan Theatre
THE UPPER echelons of Venetian political society are catapulted into the 1980s video era in Prasanna Puwanarajah’s rollicking production of Thomas Otway’s caustic dig at loyalty and power.
Pulsating nightclub dancing, a wildly eclectic soundtrack, searing lasers and vintage fashion all contribute to a show that looks and sounds wonderful.
Venice’s top brass are under external threat from a gloriously random selection of upstart terrorists – the theatre’s notable collection of boots and fatigues given yet another airing – and internally from seemingly incurable sleaze.
The decade that gave us all those Bananarama haircuts and Flock of Seagulls’ mullets also gave us Cynthia Payne and her notorious parties for London’s great and good. In the leather-gloved hands of dominatrix courtesan Aquilina (Natalie Dew) and kinky senator Antonio (a brave but completely shameless John Hodgkinson) the production channels murky sex games in one of the funniest scenes we’ve been treated to for years. A truly guilty pleasure amid all the dagger-pointing and startling violence on offer once the fun is over.
James Cotterill’s design is a feast throughout. A prison constructed entirely of laser beams and an impressively baroque execution apparatus at the end are stand-out images.
In some ways the main thrust of Otway’s piece is a classic love triangle, albeit with one side missing. Jaffeir loves his wife Belvidera and she loves him; he is also fiercely loyal to his friend Pierre and it’s in the collision between these two relationships that the play finds its dramatic drive.
Events conspire, not without Jaffeir’s express behest it has to be said, to set these relationships against one another and then to crank up the stakes to breaking point. The choice between betraying wife or friend is set out early on and just gets worse as the realities become more apparent.
Pretty much the entire structure of the play rests on these three performances and, while all are praiseworthy here, there is a mismatch which makes the whole thing slightly shakier than it could be.
Jodie McNee as the wronged wife is simply excellent. Vocally strong and setting out each argument as though her life depended on it she is a much more modern, fully-rounded woman than works of this vintage often provide. Her descent through abandonment, degradation, resignation and finally madness is beautifully charted.
Stephen Fewell as the bitter but principled soldier plotting to bring down the senate is equally convincing. He has clarity and depth and his transition from determination to eventual acceptance is sharply observed and very moving.
Between these two is Michael Grady-Hall as the husband/friend Jaffeir and it’s here that the imbalance lies. He’s a moral lightweight from the start and his constant vacillations make him a serial pushover as the action plays out. What we end up seeing is not a man wracked by the problems of making almost impossible choices, but a man whose opinion is so easily swayed as to be genuinely irritating. It’s a fine performance with humour and fury never far from the surface, but we’re left not with feelings of sympathy but wondering how his wife ever put up with him, or how his friend managed to avoid simply not returning his calls.
And it’s a love triangle where our modern minds are left wishing we had that third side. The relationship between wife and friend equally short-changed by life – now that would be worth exploring.
Venice Preserved runs until September 7. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.