Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
I’ll say this for a bit of corruption and depravity—it does help to liven up an otherwise dull evening.
So thank goodness—if that is the word—for a rubber-clad John Hodgkinson who as the bibulous senator Antonio bounces into the parlour of Natalie Dew’s Aquilina for a bit of ritual humiliation halfway through a languorous first half.
It’s not that Thomas Otway’s work of 1682 about revolt and treachery in La Serenissima is a bad play. Another senator, Priuli, angry at his daughter Belvidera’s secret marriage to Jaffeir, has seized all their property, in revenge for which the latter joins a conspiracy against the state.
To win the conspirators’ trust, Jaffeir offers up his wife as a hostage, but when one of the ringleaders, a fiery Steve Nicolson’s Renault, tries to rape her, he is torn between the two sides—one as perfidious as the other, as he learns to his cost
For all its operatic-scale improbabilities, the piece handles the conflict between personal and public loyalties in clear and powerful language, and packs a punch about political treachery as relevant in the England of Otway’s time or today. Indeed, the costumes are what might be seen in any TV enforcer drama.
Stephen Fewell is a persuasive, forceful Pierre, exactly the capable soldier to instil confidence in the uprising, and there is a greater urgency in the second half with the emergence of the Senate as the force of oppression.
Michael Grady-Hall, dressed as if from charity shop cast-offs, is a picture of pathos as the excitable but hapless Jaffeir, and there is no denying Jodie McNee’s remarkable technique and control as his rather more glamorous wife.
Separately, they ring the emotional changes, but together the chemistry fails to produce a reaction. At no time was there a feeling of intimacy; rather an awkwardness at odds with the passions necessary to drive the action to extremes.
I should confess here, as a Liverpudlian, to having a problem with McNee’s Merseyside accent, something which she perhaps wears as a badge of honour, but which here and in other RSC productions appears more as a mask that for me partly obscures the formidable talent behind it.
Director Prasanna Puwanarajah has had eight years to work on his ideas, ever since pitching the play for an award in 2011, and in the spirit of the times has chosen to emphasise the victimisation of his heroine in this adaptation. That is fair enough, but it is a pity that he gives the last word to Belvidera, cutting the following speech and thus denying Les Dennis’s Priuli the chance to express a father’s remorse.