Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

L0064135 Map of Venice

Losing Venice

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.

Genesis Inc at the Hampstead Theatre review **

sperm-956480_1920

Genesis Inc.

Hampstead Theatre Upstairs, 25th June 2018

Sometimes less is more. A lesson that writer Jemma Kennedy and director Laurie Sansom here chose to, if not ignore, certainly bypass. Made even more frustrating because, at the kernel of this play, and in its execution, are some very good ideas. I applaud the ambition of the creative team at the Hampstead Theatre under Edward Hall, and the variety of the offerings, but it does mean that, just occasionally, there is a misfire amongst the hits and the deserved West End transfers. Some of my favourite productions over the last couple of years, (Gloria, Prism, The Firm, Dry Powder, The Phlebotomist and Describe the Night), have shown at the HT, both Upstairs and Downstairs, and often I have enjoyed them more than the critics. Sadly Genesis Inc. was not one of them.

Jemma Kennedy, who is also a screenwriter, has based her first major commission for the stage, (I believe), on her own experience of IVF treatment. She has also chosen to write a comedy. So far, so good. There is a vital personal and political story to be told about the commercialisation of reproduction and fertility in an ageing capitalist society and the dilemmas this creates. She has well-structured arguments to present, and, with distressed couple Jeff (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and Serena (Rita Arya), and prospective single parent banker Bridget (Laura Howard), sympathetic, and sufficiently complex, characters to present those arguments. Harry Enfield plays Dr Marshall, the medical entrepreneur behind the fertility clinic that the three of them turn to. There are some pointed exchanges, sharp observation and some very funny lines,

But Ms Kennedy cannot then resist the temptation to add complication through additional characters and formal invention. And this is where the play goes awry. Bridget has a gay, impecunious, teacher friend/housemate/ex, Miles, played by Arthur Darvill who does a musical turn and falls for the priest, Father Scales (Arthur Wilson), at the school he rocks up in. He needs money to get on the property ladder so decides to sell his sperm for a few quid. Serena’s Mum, and dead Great-GrandMum, (played by Shobu Kapoor), poke their noses in. There is a sub-plot involving a social worker and salt of the earth victim of domestic violence played by the wonderful Claire Perkins, who also plays the childless alpha-female boss at the investment bank she works in. They, of course, get to IPO Dr Marshall’s clinic. Karl Marx and Susan Sontag are wheeled in. There is even a biblical scene involving Old Testament Abraham, wife Sarah, (90 years old when she conceived if you believe the big book), concubine Hagar and son Ishmael, and even, as you can probably guess by now, God himself. And maybe more startling, Serena’s ovary and vagina get to say a few words

All this is thrown in to allow Jemma Kennedy to make important points about the way in which women and their fertility has been treated through history and how the patriarchy and capitalism have degraded reproduction. This scattergun approach, taking aim at so many different targets, leads to some odd tonal shifts though, especially in the fantasy scenes, and especially at the end, and results in a distractingly complex set from Jess Curtis and some awkward on stage prop-shifting and costume-changing, (there are 42 named roles!).

It was a more than a little frustrating because there was so much in the basic premise, the satire of the moral framework which supports this unsavoury industry, which seems to trade on hope through unsubstantiated claims. Ms Kennedy is a smart enough writer I think to have made some of her points, and still got the laughs, within the context of the narrower personal stories. Harry Enfield is still an awkward stage presence, as he was in Once In A Lifetime at the Young Vic, but here his charm, alongside comic SA accent, masking a more ruthless commercial streak, seemed to work. Kirsty Besterman, as his officious assistant and sales jockey, had some choice lines. The stress that the IVF treatment put on the relationship between Jeff and Serena was well observed as was Bridget’s struggle to balance her desire for a child, by freezing her eggs, with career and demand for a relationship. Arthur Darvill has an unsteady naivety which matched his character and gamely rose to the challenges he was posed.

I can certainly see why the idea of stripping out the sub-plots and fantasy sequences would not have been an option for Ms Kennedy or director Laurie Sansom. The ambition to emulate the dense intellectual and theatrical experience of say an Angels in America, (cited by Edward Hall in the programme), is laudable but it didn’t really come off. And, by over-egging the pudding, I was left dissatisfied with the whole. Intrigued yes, entertained at times, made to think for sure, but just that bit uncomfortable that everyone involved was straining too hard to pull this off.