Canadian writer Jordan Tannahill’s 2016 play is an intriguingly anachronistic mash-up that splices Renaissance Italy with the 21st-century art scene. The characters inhabit a world where people have iPhones and go to fancy art parties, but where plague and religious intolerance are rife and men could be punished for the ‘sin’ of sodomy.
Dickie Beau’s leather-jacketed Botticelli is about to complete his most famous work The Birth of Venus. A favourite of nobleman Lorenzo de’ Medici, he’s playing a dangerous game by sleeping with Medici’s wife Clarice Orsini. In Tannahill’s ‘queering’ of history, Botticelli is painted as a man of sizeable sexual appetites, in love with his apprentice, a talented young artist called Leonardo from the village of Vinci.
There’s a lot going on in Blanche McIntyre’s staging. The fourth wall is repeatedly ruptured, clothes are frequently shed and the stage ends up spattered with paint. There’s an abundance of bare bums, body bags and a fantastical sequence in which Venus is wheeled onstage in a plastic clam shell surrounded by dancers gyrating to Work, B**ch.
This makes for a muddled palette. For every precisely choreographed squash game sequence – strong work by movement director Polly Bennett – there are frustrating audibility issues; for every satirical stab, there’s a heavy-handed line about political elites. Hiran Abeysekera is appealing as Leonardo but both he and Botticelli are pretty flimsy as characters (the women even more so) and there’s little sense of emotional connection between them. Given the subject matter, there’s a surprising aesthetic uncertainty, a muted flamboyance, an imaginative timidity. It never quite ignites.