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Modern setting for gripping Restoration tragedy

Venice Preserved, Swan Theatre, Stratford, to Sept 7. Two men join a plot to overthrow the corrupt Venetian Senate – but their own motives are not so pure. Both have grudges against senators. Jaffeir is angry his father-in-law has made him and his beloved Belvidera penniless for marrying secretly, and soldier Pierre’s mistress has been taking money to meet another senator’s perverted sexual desires. With a band of misfits they plot a bloody uprising and Jaffeir hands over his wife to prove his support. But when one of the rebels tries to rape her Jaffeir’s commitment is tested, and suddenly everyone’s belief in truth is questioned. This play, written by Thomas Otway in 1682, was seen as a comment on English political affairs at the time. Director Prasanna Puwanarajah has stayed faithful to the words but injected his own interests in cyberpunk and 1980s' culture to tell the tale with dry ice, laser beams and some truly awful retro hairstyles. John Hodgkinson steals every scene he is in as Senator Antonio, relishing great lines from Otway and at one point crawling alongside a trolley of sex toys as he throws himself at the mercy of Natalie Dew as icy Aquilina, and reveals a surprise for us all under his suit. Les Dennis in his first RSC season is stern as Senator Pruili, and Jodie McNee looks like a young Bananarama as Belvidera, running through the range of emotions as her easily-swayed husband makes her suffer. The as-usual great RSC set has a touch of the wet and dark Gotham City, and some of the scenes with the Senate or conspirators echo grandiose music videos from the 1980s, as well as touches of Blade Runner. This Restoration tragedy is still a gripping and fast-paced tale given a joyous touch by being brought forward 300 years.

Photos by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC.

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