Botticelli painted like an angel, and apparently he also filled his leisure hours with orgies so devilishly elaborate they'd challenge Heronymous Bosch's imagination. Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill's exercise in queering history imagines a particularly tumultuous few months in his life: in Blanche McIntyre's production, it has its moments but isn't on full sensuous form.
The semi-fictionalised scenario's a fascinating one. Botticelli is painting his famously sexy The Birth of Venus, helped by his lover, a young Leonardo de Vinci, and using powerful Medici Clarice as a nude model. And outside his studio, Florence is in tumult, gripped by plague and a religious fever that wants to stamp out both art and sexual freedom. Queer performance artist Dickie Beau plays this young virtuoso; he's engagingly brattish, even if he can't quite flesh out this slightly underdrawn central character.
His world in this play is a 21st century/Renaissance mash-up that only half works. Botticelli and his friends whip out mobile phones and call each other 'girl', but that doesn't make them a convincing gang of queer mates; the Americanised slang sits unconvincingly in their mouths. And ironically for a play that's so determinedly queer in its outlook, the two female characters neatly embody the hetero Madonna-whore complex: Botticelli's saintly mother Maria spongebaths her wounded adult son, while his Medici lover/artist's model Clarice's main interests seem to be sex and malevolent scheming.
Early on, Botticelli has a powerful straight-to-audience monologue about how we’re all terrified of the void, of death; he tells us that he's determined to fill it with sex and every last gasp of pleasure that Renaissance Florence can offer him. It's a moment of existential introspection that's often missing as the story progresses. It’s a shame, because there is something fascinating about Tannahill's self-acknowledged exercise in queer wish-fulfilment, in rewriting history's wrongs on Botticelli's own terms. His play points astutely to the way that Botticelli is ‘allowed’ to have sex with men because he’s the court pet, a tolerated queer – but he's also all too disposable. There's so much more to explore here; about how we make sense of a queer history that's defined by pain and erasure. When we try and understand historical queer people, are we seeing them, or ourselves?
McIntyre's production underscores this story's emotive moments with heavy literalism; we’re not just told there’s a plague epidemic, we see a pile of cloth-wrapped bodies gradually thunk down from the ceiling. And for a show about art and the senses, the visuals are disappointing. Bracingly graphic sex scenes are marooned on the Hampstead's wide stage, while glimpses of the Medici's sumptuous world are awkwardly framed in a giant glass window that manages to look artificial without being camp. Moments that should be kitschly beautiful – like Venus’ appearance on a light-up clamshell – look more like festive department store displays.
I can imagine this queer renaissance romp would be a lot more fun in a smaller space, in a production able to nail its camp tone and to fill it to the brim with sexuality and silliness. Here, it falls a few yards of crushed velvet short of full fabulosity.