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.

The Prisoner at the National Theatre review **

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The Prisoner

National Theatre Dorfman, 12th September 2018

OK. I should have known better. Having been bemused by Battlefield at the Young Vic in 2016 I still signed up for The Prisoner despite knowing full well I was likely set for a repeat experience. Peter Brook, and long time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, are theatrical royalty. The stripped back aesthetic, the philosophical questioning, the emotionally direct text: all this can reveal great truths. But it can also be hard work. Which is what this was.

I am far too simple, too young and insufficiently well versed in theatrical history to have seen Mr Brook’s revolutionary Shakespeare’s interpretations and I can’t speak French. I do have Adrian Lester’s Hamlet at the Old Vic from 2001 in the memory bank to understand just what PB and M-HE can conjure up. That had the assistance of one William Shakespeare however. The Prisoner is in their own words. It isn’t quite the same. Donald Sumpter is a Visitor come to some nameless place to see Ezekiel played bt Herve Goffings. He is the uncle of Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera) who has killed his father when he discovered the relationship between him and sister Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Mavuso is sentenced but is permitted to serve his punishment outside of a prison looking in, watched over by a Man (Omar Silva) and, sometimes, Guards. That’s it.

Why he does this and whether this constitutes justice are the central dilemmas of what was, frankly, a pretty long 75 minutes. It looked beautiful thanks to artfully placed “stage elements” from David Violi and the lighting design of Philippe Vialatte. The international cast performed with utter conviction. The pacing and sparse encouraged meditation but, with no tonal shift or any resolution, well other than when a mouse pitches up, soon became soporific. Drama with all of the drama deliberately sucked out. An old testament parable which might have been done and dusted in one verse. Beckett without the action or laughs (!).

I am ashamed to say this but the piece was beyond me. Still given that it is 50 years since Mr Brook last directed at the NT, and that is when it was still in the Old Vic, I am, perversely, glad I went. No-one said this culture vulture stuff would be easy after all.