Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.

Translations at the National Theatre review ****

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Translations

National Theatre Olivier, 6th June 2018

At the end of the day it is all about the words. That’s theatre. The power of language. Which is exactly what Brian Friel’s play is all about. A modern classic, first seen in 1980, in Derry (with Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally no less in the cast), to set alongside Philadelphia Here I Come, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa and The Home Place, as masterpieces from his hand. All set in the fictional town of Baie Beag (Ballybeg). All exploring the particularities of Irish history, society and culture but all offering up universal insight. The Irish Chekhov as some would, with very good reason, have it.

So I wasn’t going to pass this up and I was going to insist the SO attend. I have no truck with those currently giving Rufus Norris and the NT a kicking. There have been some absolute belters over the last couple of years which more than compensate for a couple of missteps, so you haters can STFU. Anyway this is a marvellous productions. Rae Smith has conjured up another evocative, organic, set, the “hedge” school in which the play is set is foregrounded, leaving the rest of the Oliver stage as moorland which stretches to a backdrop of rolling mist and clouds. It is 1833 in Ballybeg and embittered Manus, (superbly played by Seamus O”Hara), lame in one leg, is setting up the school run by his father Hugh. He is joined by the voluble Jimmy Jack Cassie whose shambling manner and fondness for a tipple belies his classical education. He and Hugh are equally at home in Latin and Greek as their native Gaelic. Dermot Crowley and Ciaran Hinds offer up a par of towering performances. The hedge schools which were the source of their learning are about to be replaced by a free national school system. Sarah movingly played by Michelle Fox, whose speech is impaired, is joined by Maire (Judith Roddy who was also marvellous in the recent Donmar Knives in Hens), Doalty (Lawrence Kinlan) and Bridget (Aoife Duffin) in the school.

Through their interchanges we quickly become immersed in their domestic worlds, lives that may lack material plenty but are rich in many other ways. The Great Famine is still a decade away but the threat from potato blight is addressed. Translations is not an overtly political play, Brian Friel determined to avoid that commenting¬† that “the play has to do with language and only language … and if it becomes overwhelmed by that political element, it is lost”. However when Hugh’s other, prodigal, son, Owen, returns after a several year absence, the clash of culture between British coloniser and Irish colonised, is revealed. Owen (Colin Morgan, TV’s Merlin) has returned with two English soldiers, the ruthless and patronising cartographer Captain Lancey (accurately represented by Rufus Wright) and the more sympathetic orthographer Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Owen is a translator: the soldiers have been tasked with renaming the Irish place names into English. This was initially it seems a virtuous undertaking but the metaphor is clear and, eventually, as you might guess, the army seeks retribution when one of their number goes missing.

Now Mr Friel’s brilliant central conceit is to have both the English and Irish characters speaking in English. The two English officers speak no Gaelic, though Yolland as he falls in love with both country and Maire, tries to learn. Owen, initially misnamed Roland by the officers, picks his way carefully through his translations. And, it transpires, that a number of the Irish contingent know a great deal more English that they are letting on.

Hopefully my brief description should persuade you just how elegantly, and cleverly, constructed Mr Friel’s play is. But it doesn’t stop there. In scene after scene and line after line, he patiently, but insistently, drives his points home. Even so these characters are no mere ciphers; there is plenty of emotion too. The love scene, ostensibly in two different languages, between Maire and Yolland, is very affecting, Sarah’s yearning for Manus which echoes it, Manus’s flight when he realises there is nothing left for him in Ballybeg,, Hugh’s demons fuelled by drink, Owen’s cultural ambivalence; everyone has a story to tell, and not just in words.

Ian Rickson is as sure-footed in his direction of the marvellous cast as you could wish for though there are moments of over-deliberation. Neil Austin’s lighting, Ian Dickinson’s sound design and the music of Stephen Warbeck all stand out,¬† and a big hurrah for the voice work of Charmian Hoare and Jeanette Nelson and to dialect coach Majella Hurley, this being a play about language.