The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 24th June, 2019
Thomas Otway’s play from 1682 is revived in stylish form for the RSC by director Prasanna Puwanarajah, who sets the piece in a 1980s noir-cum-comic book setting of darkness and drains, of pulsating music, with nudges to Blade Runner – and there’s even a character who looks like Grace Jones. Here, as in Otway’s original where he was critiquing the government of the day, this is not about Venice then or now. It’s a veiled comment on our present (woeful) government – and in this respect it works quite well.
Central to the action is married couple Jaffeir (NOT the villain in Aladdin) and Belvidera (NOT a guest house in Southport) whose relationship is sorely tested when he loses his money and they have to turn to her estranged father, Senator Pruili (an underused Les Dennis). Jaffeir is drawn into a group of revolutionaries by his bezzie mate Pierre (a cocksure and pragmatic Stephen Fewell) putting his wife up as collateral to prove his allegiance to their murderous cause. Belvidera doesn’t take too kindly to being offered up as a hostage and narrowly escapes rape by the swaggering Renault (Steve Nicolson) a man so rebellious he brazenly sports an alarming mullet.
As Jaffeir, Michael Grady-Hall brings passion and intensity, torn between his love and his friend. Grady-Hall is always great value, bringing out the depths of the role. Equally, Jodie McNee is compelling as tragic-but-dignified Belvidera, although I spend a lot of time wondering why she’s the only one with a strong Liverpudlian accent… Puwanarajah has his cast express emotion in broad strokes: there is a lot of falling to one’s knees, a lot of menacing each other with daggers, and while this makes for exciting viewing I find that, coupled with Otway’s scornful script, I don’t much care for anybody.
Amid the bleak melodrama, there is humour, provided mainly by the marvellous John Hodgkinson’s sleazeball senator Antonio, heavily into S&M and fully aware he can stun opponents into submission by making long speeches. The satire is ladled on thick as Hodgkinson hops around, his trousers at his ankles, alternating baby talk with oratory and verbiage.
It’s a production of bold moves, in its performance and its presentation. Belvidera’s cell, demarcated by lighting, looks like she’s being detained in a nightclub. The V for Vendetta masks sported by the revolutionaries are a bit on the nose. But I like the darkness of it, the dripping water, the coming-and-going with umbrellas. And Les Dennis navigating a gear change from hard-hearted gammon to tender, repentant father, is the finest performance of the night.
The message I come away with is that while those who oppose the government are too wrapped up with fighting among themselves, they will never achieve their aim, leaving the sleazeballs in power where they thrive and they flourish.