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Venice is sinking into the sea; and this revival of ‘Venice Preserv’d’ is sinking into a mire of wishy-washy conceptualisation.
I had no problem with the bare bones of Charlotte Westenra’s production: prune the extraneous nonsense and you’re basically left with a solid revival of Thomas Otway’s 1682 revenge tragedy. Unfortunately there was rather a lot of extraneous nonsense.
‘Venice Preserv’d’ the play is a sort of hokey descendant of ‘Hamlet’, wherein hero Jaffeir (Ashley Zhangazha) is torn between butchering the entire Venetian senate in order to please his BFF Pierre (Ferdinand Kingsley), or not butchering the entire Venetian senate in order to please his doting wife Belvidera (Jessie Buckley). Jaffeir vacillates so hysterically that even Shakespeare’s Dane would probably want to give him a slap, but rising star Zhangazha tackles the role with great conviction, crystal clear diction and a blazing passion that carries us with him. And he’s ably supported by a fine ensemble, most notably Buckley and Kingsley.
In an off-West End theatre at £15 a ticket, you’d be laughing (or weeping at the tragedy, whatever). But new company The Spectators’ Guild promises to present plays in ‘atmospheric and significant spaces offering each audience member the chance of adventure’. This essentially boils down to performing it in and around the not-very-atmospheric Paynes & Borthwick Wharf. A scene in which the wealth of the Venetian elite is decried with Canary Wharf as a backdrop is a nice touch; a faux-Venetian bridge made of ugly scaffolding is not; in general it looks a lot cheaper than it probably was, and momentum of the play is dulled by constantly having to constantly move between chilly rooms.
The most egregious offence, though, is a lengthy prologue section in which we trudge down from the Cutty Sark in an enforcedly jolly imitation of a Venetian carnival. Maybe I’m just a sourpuss, but an hour of Butlins-grade ‘fun’ (they make us do a dance) struck me as a singularly awful fit for a gory tragedy, plus it brings the running time up to nearly four hours.
New theatre companies should have the right to find their feet, and I hope the Spectators’ Guild do, because they are good with the basics. But at £35 a ticket, I’d advise you to preserve what’s inside your wallet.