Reviewed by Alun Thomas
Venice, the suppurating city, bursts into new and malignant life in London’s docklands in this astonishing play. Venice Preserv’d, a site-specific production staged in the empty shells of half-built luxury flats in Greenwich, immerses the audience in the decadent world of La Serenissima, conjuring up the City of Masks in all its splendour and squalor.
Thomas Otway’s Vencice Preserv’d, first performed in 1682, is a tragedy about the murderous collision of personal and political envy. Cuckolded by a wealthy Venetian senator, and unable to take his revenge, the penniless soldier Pierre enlists his friend Jaffeir in a plot to massacre the Senate. They join with a group of conspirators driven by anger at the corruption strangling the city, and the personal humiliation they’ve suffered at the hands of the rich. The only problem is Jaffeir’s wife, Belvidera, whose father is a senator… Torn between the seduction of Pierre’s violent retribution, and his wife’s passionate protests, the vacillating Jaffeir betrays them both, and then himself.
The two friends long for each other as much as revolution, a frisson superbly conveyed by Ferdinand Kingsley’s Pierre and Ashley Zhangazha’s tortured Jaffier. Special mention must be made of Jessie Buckley’s superlative Belvidera; simultaneously pure and scheming, innocent and manipulative, she’s the fulcrum around which the play revolves.
The true focus of the production, however, is the landscape itself. The staging incorporates the city, and its all-too-visible inequality of wealth, into the play. As the characters denounce the concentration of power and wealth in Venice, they gesture at the bright lights of the City, London’s financial powerhouse, glittering over the water, a potent symbol of the power and corruption the play decries. The wealthy occupants of the flats which surround us lean over their balconies to watch and take photos on their iphones, unaware that they are a part, indeed the subject, of the drama.
A twisted carnival atmosphere pervades the play, but the forced gaiety fails to conceal the precariousness of the situation: the foundations of the venal city are rotting, and Venice is slowly sinking. One look across the river, or a glance at the flats overhead, is enough to remind us that the frustration, resentment and murderous rage displayed by the plotters are emotions shared by many. We become co-conspirators, drawn into their intrigues. When the rabble meets in a run-down alehouse to plan their assault, they toast their success, distributing wine to the front row, who raise their glasses with the murderers. During the interval the audience buy drinks from the same bar, mingling with the plotters as they kill time before the massacre begins. Later, when the Senate meet to condemn the conspirators, the audience are robed in red cloaks, playing the part of the outraged senators as we sit in judgment. As the play lurches towards its bloody conclusion, masked cutpurses lurk at the edge of the performance, hovering just out of view.
Our immersion in the world of the play begins long before the day itself: after booking tickets, we are directed to a detailed questionnaire which ultimately forces us to define ourselves as Preservers or Destroyers; depending on the answer, we receive a carnival mask to print out and wear to the performance. This attention to detail encompasses the entire production; there’s simply no escaping the squalid world the play creates. Even the half-built toilets, which resemble a construction site, are dotted with posters and newspapers attacking the Doge.
As the forced grins of the opening carnival collapse into self-loathing, the violence directed at the senators turns inward, consuming the plotters and the people they love in a frenzy of murder and suicide. Water, projected on the windows, submerges the city. The carnival is over, and the brutal austerity of Lent has begun.