Hampstead Theatre and Thelma Holt by arrangement with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Almost exactly 500 years ago, the City-State of Florence could boast the creative presence of two artistic giants, who are recognized today as amongst the greatest geniuses of history; together with a schemer like no other. Like San Francisco half a millennium on, it was also the gay capital of the known world.
Sir Antony Sher, primarily an actor but also talented as a novelist, artist and playwright, has woven these stories together for the RSC, and the result is a historical drama about the creative impulse and the flawed human beings in whom it resides.
Surprisingly, in the presence of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Niccolo Machiavelli, The Giant of the title is none of those gentlemen but a piece of Carrara Marble 25 feet high that, in the far stronger first half of this three-hour play, becomes the subject of a competition.
It has to be said, that in choosing William Dudley as a designer, Sir Antony and his director/partner, Greg Doran left themselves hostages to fortune. Dudley is perhaps best known as the man who almost single-handedly invented the computer-generated set, initially for The Coast of Utopia but also knows how to work with lower-tech materials. He is almost as much of a star in his field as the glittery Florentine triumvirate and, in designing a wood-lined workshop to facilitate the sculpting of The Giant into a facsimile of human beauty, he excels himself.
It is not only the visual attraction of the set that one notes, with its marvellous centrepiece from which large chunks can be removed, but also the lovingly reconstructed middle-ages' machinery. After the interval, there is a significant transformation as the solid block becomes an impressive sculpture.
The history of what was to become Michelangelo's David is narrated by Vito, Richard Moore playing a salty old exhibitionist who hails from Carrara but was once the focal point of this story, in the most literal sense.
The old man soon dissolves into the youngster that he once was, a constant observer on the sidelines of art history who eventually steps centre stage.
In 1501, the Florentines were apparently concerned that their reputation was becoming sullied by the presence of homosexuals who were flocking to the city like bees to a honey pot. In an attempt to reposition themselves, to use the modern parlance, they instituted a competition to create an oversized sculpture of David after he had slain and beheaded Goliath.
Three men put themselves forward, the young one, the famous one and the reliable one. These were the wild-eyed and increasingly obsessive 26-year-old Michelangelo, impressively portrayed by John Light; Roger Allam's laid-back, witty Leonardo who was almost twice his main rival's age and in this version seems more interested in his muse camply played by Simon Trinder than winning; and a rather irritating bearded nonentity who doesn't give any great impression of reliability.
Two other characters are important. Stephen Noonan who was recently seen on the stage playing a more modern artist, Jake Chapman, is a suitably cool and malign "Prince" Machiavelli. He administers the competition, more one suspects because he became famous 500 years later than for any other reason.
The young observer Vito, now played by Stephen Hagan, comes from the land of marble and demands a role as apprentice to Michelangelo who unexpectedly beats off his more experienced rivals to win the commission of a lifetime.
In addition to becoming the artist's virtual slave, this paragon of physical beauty who, like the future King David, happens to wield a mean sling, becomes a model and muse to his master. He also befriends Leonardo at severe risk to his masculine modesty.
Following the excitement of a contest that would promote the young man to iconic status, the interval curtain changes the tone. Afterwards, the increasingly tetchy Michelangelo, haunted by his own religious beliefs and the babbling acolytes of the recently martyred Savanarola, beautifully models the young man's naked figure for posterity, while the characters debate beauty, sexuality and power.
The Giant throws three historical characters into each other's company and, up to a point, illustrates their strengths and weaknesses and the way in which they might have interacted had they known each other. Ultimately, while there are some good performances and interesting historical perspectives there is not enough sense of direction to fulfil the early promise or flesh out what in principle looks like a great concept.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher