Writer: Thomas Otway
Director: Charlotte Westenra
Reviewer: Nichola Daunton
New company the Spectators’ Guild, aim to do for London theatre what Secret Cinema have done for film. Producer Harry Ross and production designer Helen Scarlett O’Neill have previously worked on Secret Cinema projects so they have experience of sniffing out abandoned or partially constructed venues. For their first outing, a revival of Thomas Otway’s 17th century tragedy, Venice Preserv’d, the building, Paynes and Borthwick Wharf in Deptford Creek, is as much a star as the script itself and plays an integral part in the action. Destined to become yet another riverside development for the rich – two bedroom apartments are currently listed at just over half a million – before it is cut off from its surroundings entirely, the Spectators’ Guild are using the space to explore wealth and corruption in 17th century Venice. Overlooked by the glittering towers of Canary Wharf, there probably isn’t a better building site in London to stage a play with corruption and power play at its heart.
There’s more to Venice Preserv’d then a well chosen building site though. What Spectators’ Guild are attempting to do here is create their own mini Venice in Greenwich. Beginning at the Cutty Sark, we meet a motley crew of jugglers, clowns and performers, ready to guide us to Paynes and Borthwick in a carnival procession. Some audience members are handed flags and parasols, while others get rides in a wheelbarrow. While the atmosphere is definitely jolly, given the small ensemble it’s not quite the Venetian overhaul it’s billed as. After arriving at the venue, we are offered the chance to turn our money into Ducats, purchase a drink or some nibbles and generally soak up the atmosphere. There’s a prize for the best dressed audience member, some Commedia dell’Arte skits and a chance to admire the views across the river.
The immersive world that the Spectators’ Guild are trying to create here is a pleasant one, though by no means mind-blowing. When booking tickets, audience members are also asked to fill in a short questionnaire to ascertain whether they are a friend or foe of the state and told to print off and decorate a fan that they must carry at all times to identify themselves to others. The online sideshows, while designed to get us in the mood, are little more than shallow motifs that add nothing to the night. We are never called upon to use our fans, and in fact audience participation once the play starts, amounts to very little beyond wearing a variety of props and moving around the space.
So what of the play? Directed by Charlotte Westenra, Venice Preserv’d explores the lives of a group of Venetians on the brink of revolutionary activity. Jaffier has recently married Belvidera much to the displeasure of her senator father. Cut off without a penny, Jaffier’s resentment grows and is finally ignited by his close friend Pierre, a soldier and conspirator against the state. Lured into a conspiratorial underworld, Jaffier is forced to place Belvidera’s life on the line in order to show his trustworthiness, a move which slowly unravels each of their lives. Jessie Buckley delivers a powerful performance as Belvidera, cutting through the masculine bravado that pervades the play with wit, charm and a determination to stick to her principles. Guiding us from room to room and taking in a Venetian courtyard, the house of the senators and eventually the scaffold, despite the use of props and movement this is a fairly traditional play, and the movement can at times prove a distraction from true involvement in the story.
Belvidera’s final scene though is a very moving one and provokes a good deal of sympathy for the position she has been forced into, a rarity for women’s rôles in the 17th century. Ashley Zhangazha and Ferdinand Kingsley also give strong performances as Jaffier and Pierre, while Ayesha Antoine is sharp and catty as put-upon courtesan Aquilinia. What we are left with at the end of the night though is a restoration revival draped across a symbol of London’s increasingly insurmountable wealth gap. The coup for Spectators’ Guild was securing this building and highlighting the similarities between 17th century Venice and modern London, as for the rest, much of it is just bells and whistles.
Photo: Johan Persson |Runs until 8th June