Written in the tumultuous decades following the English Restoration, Thomas Otway’s 1682 tragedy Venice Preserved is a strikingly bleak and misanthropic melodrama, which vividly channels a potent sense of political disaffection. As conspirators plan a coup, the gormless, good-hearted Jaffeir finds himself vacillating between his love for senator’s daughter Belvidera and his duty to his revolutionary-minded mates.
Otway’s savage text heaps scorn on all sides, making little distinction between the merciless powers that be, the bloodthirsty rebels intent on overthrowing them, or the conflicted citizens caught in the middle.
Director Prasanna Puwanarajah grappled with overlapping themes in his raw and powerful staging of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Both stories explore messy, morally complex political landscapes, but here the tone is less restrained, painted in broader strokes. Puwanarajah’s characters scream, weep, draw knives and fall to their knees to worship at their lovers’ feet at the drop of a hat.
James Cotterill’s striking design underlines this heightened mood, embracing a delicious tech-noir aesthetic in which splashes of pink neon and rippling teal laser-beams blaze through a fug of omnipresent haze. Rain dribbles down the walls of an imposing set built to resemble a decaying basilica as black and shiny as obsidian, while anonymous figures strut through the murk, dressed in dripping raincoats or velvet robes, 1980s power suits and gilded Guy Fawkes masks.
It’s a bewildering, heavy-handed, but undeniably appealing collision of all the most stylish dystopias, from Blade Runner to V for Vendetta.
Michael Grady-Hall plays the weak and easily led Jaffeir with a disarming frankness. He’s a lovelorn, floppy-limbed, damp sheet of a man, all too believable as a victim of radicalisation.
In contrast, Jodie McNee makes a formidable, compellingly complex Belvidera, kind but cunning, tender but capable of ferocity – as a brutal, riveting prison-break sequence makes abundantly clear. Though the character ultimately, and problematically, goes mad after being abandoned by Jaffeir, McNee’s performance clings to a core of unshakeable dignity.
Les Dennis’ city father Priuli has an abrupt but engaging journey from petty-minded reactionary to compassionate conciliator, while Alison Halstead’s idealistic diplomat Bedamar tries valiantly to hold together a doomed alliance of mercenaries and freedom fighters.
Meanwhile, John Hodgkinson does fine comic work as sleazy senator Antonio, the skilled debater deploying his resonant oratory in a sequence of increasingly grotesque come-ons targeting Natalie Dew’s spiteful, steely sex worker Aquilina.
Inevitably, though, their key scene together – in which his demands for sexual humiliation collide with her desire to harm him – ends up being played for lazy laughs rather than furthering the theme of self-abnegation that simmers under the surface of this seedy, nasty, flawed, but still subversive play.