Peter Ormerod reviews Venice Preserved at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
If ever a play could be described as bulletproof, this is it. There are times when Prasanna Puwanarajah's production seems intent on injuring it; but mercifully, thanks to some fine performances and the tightness of the script, it emerges pretty much intact.
Thomas Otway's 1682 masterpiece is compelling in every respect, setting up a seemingly intractable dilemma, infusing it with deep romance and resolving it with defiant tragedy. Its briskness belies its depth, its language crisp and its rhythms buoyant. It is a true jewel of the British dramatic canon.
Its Venice is under the tyranny of the Senate. But a rebellion is stirring, into which the noble Jaffeir is drawn. The problem is that he has secretly married Belvidera, whose father happens to be one of the hated senators. Matters grow still more troubling when the leader of the rebels attempts to rape Belvidera. Jaffeir is thus torn between undermining the rebellion and betraying his wife.
Much has been made of this production's dystopian noir influences, most notably the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, Japanese anime and the associated cyberpunk look. Into this setting is placed the unlikely figure of former Family Fortunes host and all-round TV funnyman Les Dennis, the casting of whom has also drawn attention. It is fair to say that the latter works better than the former.
The difficulty is less with the style and more with its execution. It is easy to see why the director felt this treatment would serve well such a dark tale of intrigue. But while its inspirations are known for being sharp, clean and starkly beautiful, too much here is fuzzy and untidy. Anyone who invokes Ridley Scott's visionary epic had better make sure its exquisite sense of style is replicated; every frame of that film is a work of art. But here, too many scenes seem to be staged with insufficient attention to aesthetics: having characters emerge from darkness is a neat device, but composition and even lighting often lack that striking, mesmerising boldness and poise.
Matters are not helped by the soundtrack, which is strong in places but fails to cohere into a convincing sonic world, and most markedly by some ill-fittingly broad humour. Otway's desire for comic relief is understandable, but here the lascivious clowning of John Hodgkinson as the senator Antonio feels like it belongs in another play entirely. His comic talent cannot be questioned, and he provoked hearty laughter. But one felt rather for the actors given the task of returning the play to its original tone: poor Les Dennis at one point drew entirely unwanted guffaws. Most awkward of all is a scene with a BDSM theme: I am no prude but to my tastes it was deeply unappealing comedically, aesthetically and dramatically, however well played it doubtless was, and however well it was received by much of the audience.
And just when one might hope the RSC has got over its accent problem, here it returns in quite depressing form. The company has a sorry history of deploying regional accents as lazy shorthand for character types, and here the only London accent belongs to Steve Nicolson as rebel ringleader and rapist Renault. Nicolson does a good job but it's all rather crass and clichéd in its East End gangland boss vibe.
Fortunately there are enough impressive performances to keep the show on the rails. Jodie McNee is a powerful and impassioned Belvidera, with bite, edge and heart (and accent mercifully undiluted). Michael Grady-Hall is a likeable foil as Jaffeir, idealistic yet impressionable and naive. And Les Dennis brings a compellingly wonky paternalism as the senator Priuli, Belvidera's father; he deserves a lead role before long.
With a little more time and care, this production might have fulfilled its grand ambitions; the look and feel of the final scene show just how good the rest could have been. As it stands, it is a decidedly improvable presentation of a nigh-on unimprovable play, with just enough to make it worth persevering with.
* Venice Preserved runs until September 7. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/venice-preserved to book.