Sunday, 27 April 2014

Theatre review: Venice Preserv'd

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This show hasn't open'd to the press yet, aspects could be chang'd or improv'd.

Of course no amount of previews or re-rehearsals can deal with problems like the wrong venue, or a project that's been misconceiv'd from the word go. Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d is a 17th century tragedy of love, rebellion, elderly submissives and the occasional bit of gaying it up. Jaffier (Ashley Zhangazha) has married Belvidera (Pirate Jessie Buckley) against her father's wishes. Her father isn't the quickest on the uptake, as it's not until they've been married for a while and had a kid that he notices, and takes his revenge on Jaffier by having him cast out of his home penniless. Meanwhile the young people of Venice are plotting a rebellion against the rulers of the city, and the rebel Pierre (Ferdinand Kingsley) uses Jaffier's anger at his current situation to recruit him to his own cause. But Belvidera ends up becoming a pawn in the revolt, and everyone pays for it. Primarily the audience.

Charlotte Westenra has reviv'd Venice Preserv'd at Paynes & Borthwick Wharf, a new business and apartment development on the river in Deptford. The show starts, though, at the Cutty Sark in nearby Greenwich. One of the rebels, Eliot (Dwane Walcott,) gives us a prologue to the action, but with a lengthy "parade" up the road to the venue, it's well over an hour into the show before Otway's play actually starts.

Once we've reach'd the venue, the production takes the form of a promenade performance, first on the terrace by the river where the opening scenes at the Venice carnival are play'd, then into a courtyard surround'd by luxury flats. And this is where the uncomfortable feeling begins of the audience having been "had:" With the production's hefty bill having been pick'd up by the property developers, it increasingly feels as if you're in the middle of an incredibly elaborate advert for flats and office space.

It might explain why the show feels crowbarr'd into the space and the conceit. Venice Preserv'd may take place during the carnival, but it's a story of the intrigue and darkness going on behind the songs and bright lights. So using it as the central part of an "event" that tries to recreate this carnival atmosphere for its first couple of hours feels misjudg'd. The audience are ask'd to do quite a lot to be allow'd in to "Venice" - there's two different tickets for admission, one of which is a "mask" that you need to keep with you if you want to be readmitt'd after going to the toilet1. Fancy dress is request'd (no, I didn't) and you can't even buy a programme or drink on site without converting your money into "ducats2."

It's a hell of a lot of distractions from the story, which is a shame because there's some good actors here, when you can see them (a risk of doing your show in an unfinish'd building is unreliable electrics; a power cut meant the indoor scenes were essentially perform'd by silhouettes.3) Kingsley is particularly good, and a couple of the people I went with said his leather trousers were the only thing that made them come back after the interval. But the logistics of shepherding a couple of hundred audience members into different areas, either standing or sitting, and in one case all having to dress as Little Red Riding Hood to watch a scene because of reasons, means the actors' efforts are too spread out - there's probably 90 minutes of play at most, in the almost four hours of my life I spent on this show. You don't have a chance to care about what's going on, so the main source of entertainment is for aficionados of obscure internet memes, who will enjoy the many references to the Doge.

Although personally I also giggl'd every time someone said Jaffier's name.

There's ambition here, but it's sadly fail'd to pay off as the practicalities of the staging overwhelm the story. With its many eccentric demands on the audience before the show even starts, it feels like The Spectators' Guild are trying to harness some of the "event" value of Punchdrunk, but they don't have that kind of established loyalty, and they don't achieve anything immersive - once you've got past the trappings the actual staging of the scenes is traditional. Owen McCafferty’s editing and rewriting of the text is often jarring, and the faffing about with fancy dress, parades, jugglers and a frankly uncomfortable scene of an audience member being chosen for a snog with one of the cast makes it seem like the play itself is a bit of an afterthought - theatre for people who aren't particularly interested in theatre.

Venice Preserv'd by Thomas Otway with prologue and text revisions by Owen McCafferty is booking until the 8th of June at Paynes & Borthwick Wharf.

Running time: 3 hours 50 minutes including interval.

1in the toilets there's a sign asking the builders to blow their noses into a tissue, not directly into the sink. I feel this may somewhat undermine the classy image the developers are trying to project.

2of the four of us, only Weez succumb'd and convert'd her money, and that's only 'cause she was accost'd during the parade, when she had a flag and was therefore still in the spirit of things. She spent precisely none of her ducats, so convert'd the whole lot back to real money afterwards. Our theory as to why they made you convert your money was that they hoped you wouldn't notice how much they were charging for a mini-quiche.

3another risk is that the highlight of the whole show might be a couple of moving men carrying a sofa past a window above the action, and suddenly realising they've got an audience.


  1. Spare a thought for the residents getting 'treated' to a daily show, without any notice

  2. VERY scathing and negative - we went and had a great time! Yes I wouldn't really call it immersive, more promenade, but I thought what you call the 'faffing' with carnival, dressing up etc was fun. Don't be put off!

    1. It probably comes down to what you want out of it. As theatre I found it profoundly lacking, and it's interesting how closely some of the newspaper reviewers have agreed with me, which doesn't happen often.

  3. Does Jessie Buckley go for a swim in a tank of water?