- Venice Preservedby Thomas Otway
Called "one of the first names in English drama" by Samuel Johnson, Restoration tragedian Thomas Otway has now all but disappeared from the repertoire, along with most of the period's major tragic dramatists. After dropping out of the repertoire in the late nineteenth century, Venice Preservedreemerged with a successful revival directed by Peter Brook at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1953, starring the legendary John Gielgud and Paul Scofield. Afterwards, it has enjoyed the occasional revival every decade or so, mostly in the United Kingdom. Director Prasanna Puwanarajah's summer 2019 production at the Royal Shakespeare Company presented a streamlined narrative that eschewed period specificity for a cynical take on the play's political stakes, emphasizing the personal relationships at its center.
At first glance, Venice Preservedseems like an odd choice for Puwanarajah's directorial debut at the RSC. As an actor, he has been outspoken about racist practices in British theater and film. In an interview with the Financial Times, he described the play as being "about crumbling city states that were once great empires, it's about the rise of the morally impure protagonist in that space, it's about idiots in power… It has incredible characters who are at the edges of a revolution." 1He remarks in the same interview that his everyday experience of racism has only gotten worse after the European Union referendum. In a political moment in which fascism is ascendant, the murky rebellion at the center of Venice Preserved [End Page 299]speaks to a zeitgeist where lasting progress can feel elusive. Puwanarajah's take on the play's politics is one in which there is no side that offers a clear way towards a better future.
This vision of the play, described by Puwanarajah as "Restoration noir," was interpreted through a design rooted in cyberpunk à la "Blade Runner" (1982), an aesthetic developed in the eighties in a response to Japanese anime, sci-fi dystopia, new technologies in surveillance and gaming, and the wealth disparities from Thatcherism and Reaganomics. In many ways this is an inspired choice as a setting for a Restoration tragedy, as both cyberpunk and Restoration tragedy respond to periods of conservative reaction to previous political instability, rendered aesthetically through visual excess in art and fashion. A particularly evocative image connecting these disparate modes was when the conspirators don the Guy Fawkes masks from "V for Vendetta" (1982–89), Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel about an anti-fascist vigilante. The pop culture afterlife of the Gunpowder Plot referenced the other Popish Plot of 1678, a cyberpunk gesture to the anti-Catholic paranoia that informed the play's premiere.
Puwanarajah's slimmed-down text intentionally avoided many of the "operatic qualities" (his words) that characterize Restoration tragedy, but the central emotional stakes remained the love between Jaffeir and Belvidera, played with intensity by Michael Grady-Hall and Jodie McNee, respectively. Jaffeir's sincerity is never in doubt, but his presentation here as a beta male in pleated khakis made apparent from the opening the weakness that lead him to offer Belvidera as collateral to the conspirators. Stephen Fewell's Pierre, in contrast, had charisma to burn; a disillusioned military officer, he appeared to be the only character who believed in idealistic rebellion. These three central performances elevate the conflict from Jaffeir's initial petulant reaction against his senator father-in-law, showing how his equally compelling but irreconcilable loyalties to his friend and his wife can only lead to tragedy.
The crowd-pleasing sections of the production were dominated by John Hodgkinson's...