Orange Tree Theatre, 24th September 2018
A modicum of research was all that was required to realise that this was going to be a curious, but also intriguing, entertainment. Which is near enough exactly what it was. Jo Clifford’s play was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe when it first appeared in 1985. With its story of a great Empire now in decline, and its scrutiny of strict gender roles in society, it is easy to see why the OT’s Paul Miller was drawn to revive it. The play certainly chimes with key contemporary debates on Brexit and toxic masculinity, and Jo Clifford’s own personal journey makes it more absorbing, but it is, structurally at least, something of an acquired taste.
Tim Delap plays the Pedro Tellez Geron (1574-1624) the third Duke of Osuna, a military adventurer, who, after becoming Viceroy of Sicily, and then of Naples, for Golden Age Spain, plotted to conquer Venice. The plot was uncovered and Osuna subsequently fell from favour after Philip III’s death in 1621. Jo Clifford’s play teams the Duke up with Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, (played by Christopher Logan), a poet and secretary to Queen Ana in the Spanish Court of Felipe II. He put himself about a bit, generally ruffled feathers and was one of the prime exponents of a dramatic writing style at the time known as Conceptismo, characterised by rapid rhythm, directness, simple vocabulary, witty metaphors and word-play. It prized multiple meanings and conceptual intricacies, in stark contrast to the ornateness of rival style at the time of Culteranismo. Both were obsessed with honour, reputation and chastity building on the sort of flummery that had bedevilled the world of secular culture for centuries prior.
Now knowing this, and that Jo Clifford had previously translated some of the greats from Spanish Golden Age theatre such as Calderon de la Barca, and you can begin to understand the structure of Losing Venice. For this to is a story with multiple meanings which moves rapidly across space and time and appears quite stylised. Ms Clifford sought to take a current (in the 1980s) sensibility on politics and gender and fuse it with this ostensibly “true” history with a contemporary (for 1618) dramatic style. Designer Jess Curtis in this revival has highlighted this synthesis with her costumes which mix the Golden Age with a 1980s post-punk, New Romantic look.
The adventures of the strutting Duke and affected Quevodo draw in other parties, servants Pablo (Remus Brooks), Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka), the rejected and oddly coiffed Duchess (Florence Roberts, also a Priest), Secretary (Dan Wheeler who also provides some music), the grouchy King (David Verrey) and the prosaic “Mr and Mrs Doge” (David Verrey and Eleanor Fanyinka again). A key role is that of the Sister here played by Tia Bannon and not, unfortunately given the extra dimension this would have brought, the originally cast Josh-Susan Enright. Not that Ms Bannon didn’t try to fully commit, as did her colleagues, to the play. It is just that it is so striking in tone that I wasn’t entirely clear just how “inside” the characters Paul Miller wished them to be. The knowing, and sometimes farcical, tone, the sense that the performers, indeed the whole play, was “looking into” the events as a metaphor or lesson for something else, the decline of Empire and the desire of boys to always go fighting, didn’t completely take over, such that it could just be read as a rapid, and somewhat bitty, and increasingly odd, history play, (where I would guess most of the audience didn’t know the history).
Still once you adjusted to this idiosyncratic form there was stuff to savour and it didn’t drag on, even giving us an interval to ponder what was going on. The Duke doesn’t really do consequences, is locked in the past, sees everything as a contest and takes vanity to extremes. His fading libido is conjoined with that of his country. All in all a prize dickhead not unlike a few of our current crop of deluded politicians. Quevedo’s pen may be mightier than his sword but his fine words don’t necessarily resonate with his master and there are a whole heap of unbuttered parsnips here. The women and servants look on with various degrees of exasperation. Eleanor Mayinka stands out as the sympathetic Maria but maybe just because she is the most sincere character in the play.
So this might be a play whose novelty has played out, or it might be a play that was over-praised in the first place. Or maybe it is, as my Mum would have said, “too clever for its own good”. Or maybe it is a production where the normally very reliable Paul Miller couldn’t quite make up his mind. Or rather where he couldn’t quite pin down this slippery, and odd, fish. Or maybe, for once, the OT space was a hindrance not a help. I think it might be a little bit of all of these things but offsetting this is a spark of invention and bravado that I, for one, am always happy to see. Even if it didn’t quite come off, I can safely say I haven’t ever seen anything like it. And that it itself is no small praise. A counter to the excess of lazy literalism which pollutes the body politic is surely no bad thing.