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 Hunt at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Hunt

Almeida Theatre, 1st August 2019

I am not sure where I stand on the films of director, controversialist and misogynist Lars van Trier. I guess if you venture into dark territory you are going to make the audience that follows you uneasy. Which is how I feel about the likes of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Brilliant film-making if not always brilliant films. 

Fellow Dogme 95 founder Thomas Vinterberg is a much more palatable director however. More interested in social rather than individual psychology, more polis than eros, and less prone to stylistic innovation. Festen (The Celebration) is a work of unsettling, tonally ambiguous, tragi-comic genius, Submarino somehow extracts redemption from the unremitting pain of the brothers’ lives at its centre, Far From the Madding Crowd is better than the original, (Schlesinger’s and, I regret to say SO, Hardy’s), I’ve just seen the intriguing The Commune and I have Kursk on the watch list. But his best film for me is The Hunt, though it is helped by an outstanding central performance by the coolest actor on earth Mads Mikkelsen. 

All of his “original” films seem to be to be intrinsically dramatic, focussed on character, plot and idea, rather than spectacle, and not expansive in terms of time or place. Which makes them eminently suitable for theatrical treatment. It is a matter of some regret that the original Almeida production of Festen in 2004, which cemented the reputations of both Rufus Norris, now NT head, and playwright David Eldridge, who adapted the script of Vinterberg and his regular co-writer Tobias Lindholm, coincided with a theatrical “dry” period for the Tourist. Hopefully one day it will return.

This time it is Almeida AD Rupert Goold directing, following on from his string of hits , Shipwreck, Albion, Ink, Medea, King Charles III and American Psycho. We should never forget that it all starts with the writer, and that in this regard the Almeida has been lucky. More over the theatre is, I assume, now flush with enough cash and kudos to pull in any actor and creative team that is desires. Even so, and maybe forgiving a few recent misfires, the last few years have been a purple patch for the house even by comparison to its very high historical standards. Simple rule. Just buy a ticket for everything they put on. Even now that Robert Icke is on his way since Rebecca Frecknall looks to be a very capable replacement as Associate Director. (Next up her version of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Any playwright good enough to inspire a Bunnymen song gets my vote).

A story of a man or woman wrongly accused and shunned by a small community is obvious theatrical catnip. Reference the film where teacher Lucas returns to his Danish hometown and a job in a primary school after redundancy and the break-up of his marriage in the city. After a misunderstanding in the school with Clara, the daughter of Lucas’s best friend Theo, that we, but not the community, see, Lucas is accused of paedophilia. The set-up, the investigation that follows and the violent fall-out is all painfully realistic. The story though ends with neither forgiveness or banishment as you might expect. There is plenty of symbolism along the way as Lucas’s relationships with colleagues, friends, son Marcus, church members and hunting pals is dissected. A thriller with a moral message, rich in ambiguity, taking a potshot at Danish society’s complacent view of its own tolerance. Like I say. Theatrical catnip.

But it still needed adapting. Enter David Farr. I don’t know any of Mr Farr’s original writing or adaptations in the theatre but I, and probably you, will know his work for television, particularly his adaptations of John Le Carrie’s The Night Manager and, less successfully maybe, Misha Glenny’s McMafia. For The Hunt he has stuck pretty closely I think to the plot and chronology of the film, though he has made Lucas more solitary by removing girlfriend Nadja and friend Bruun, altered his relationship with Marcus and cleverly updated the schoolroom set-up. The deer hunts, and the ritualistic machismo that pervades them, have also been highlighted and provide some intense theatre assisted by the costumes of Evie Gurney, lighting of Neil Austin, sound of Adam Cork and movement of Botis Seva. Lucas is, graphically, turned into the prey.

I have said before that Rupert Gould strikes me as a generous director who brings out the best in the creatives around him and The Hunt is no exception. This is a gripping story but could have been delivered in a predictable enter/dialogue/exit, scene after scene fashion, as literal as its source. Instead, as in the string of his other plays mentioned above, the play is replete with movement, symbolism and visual diversion. The tone is set by, er, Es Devlin’s set. Yes it is another of her trademark glass boxes, set on a blond wood circular stage, but, whether as school, house, church, hunt meeting hall or, brace yourself, deer enclosure, switching from transparent to opaque, from place of safety to place or threat, it still works to brilliant effect.

Tobias Menzies is set to play Phil the Greek in Series 3 and 4 of The Crown but he has already decorated TV and film with distinction, though looking at his bio I haven’t seen nearly enough of him. On stage he was excellent as Mikhail/Michael in Robert Icke’s underrated Uncle Vanya at, yep you guessed it, the Almeida, but other than that, again, I haven’t seen him perform. Here though he was perfectly cast. Lucas is innocent, of the crime of which he is accused for sure, but also in a broader sense. This story is not an attempt to create false parity or deny the victim. It is about the hypocrisy and anger that can infect a small community when threatened. Lucas is neither good nor bad, simply the catalyst for the reaction, though we can sympathise with his plight. This doesn’t mean that the play dodges the uncomfortable truths it confronts, just that it doesn’t go in, as is the Dogme 95 way, for an overt moral stance.

For this to work requires Tobias Menzies to present Lucas as self contained, curiously restrained, almost withdrawn, in the face of what happens. This he does. To devastating effect. Justin Salinger as the feckless Theo and Poppy Miller as his unhappy wife Mikala, the three of them have baggage, are equally convincing, torn between believing their daughter or their friend. Around this trinity, Michele Austin as head teacher Hilde, Stuart Campbell as the gawky, raging Marcus, Danny Kirrane as the hyper-aggressive Gunnar and Howard Ward as the investigator Per also stood out. And Abbiegail Mills as young Clara should definitely stick with this acting lark (though not to the exclusion of her other studies of course).

Adaptations of films for the stage don’t always work. Witness many of Ivo van Hove’s creations. Though Network was a recent triumphant exception. This was in large part though thanks to the unsung adaptation of Lee Hall. In the same way we must thank David Farr for his smart contribution here. As good as the film? Maybe not quite. But still something remarkable to set alongside it.