Scuttling along the length of the Cutty Sark, the meeting point for Venice Preserv’d, I wonder if I am in the right place. It is quiet and overcast and there are a few small groups milling about but not much else going on. Suddenly though, there is an explosion of bells, whistles and jubilant shouts from the ship’s prow. As I approach, a dense cloud of music and colourful flags quickly unfurls, transforming into a procession that snakes along the waterfront and burrows through the docklands. Strangers stop and smile as the performers beckon the audience through the streets, making lewd jokes and offering compliments at every turn until finally we arrive in a Venetian square set up on the banks of the Thames. This immersive rendition of Thomas Otway’s revered Restoration play makes full use of the unfinished development on Paynes Wharf and asks its audience to actively engage with the story rather than simply watch it unfold.
Upon arriving in Venice, the audience mingles in the piazza as a gaggle of street performers tumbles about the makeshift stage with zest and charisma. The group disperses and we see Jaffier, a young nobleman bemoaning his current situation. His secret marriage to Belvidera has angered her father Priuli, a Senator, and resulted in his severing Belvidera’s inheritance. Pierre, a foreign soldier and Jaffier’s confidant, informs Jaffier of a planned uprising against the Senate and persuades him to join the rebels. Pierre’s own reasons for joining the conspirators lie within his love for Aquilina, a notorious courtesan whose lucrative relationship with Antonio, another Senator, fills Pierre with rage.
Venice Preserv’d‘s innovative use of an expansive performance space undoubtedly supports the impression that the drama is unfolding in a real city. Equally though, it creates moments of gaping inactivity as the audience (which is by no means a small crowd) must funnel through the various alleyways to watch the next scene. This makes it difficult to connect emotionally to the performers who, in all honesty, are fantastically talented. The poetry of the script cascades effortlessly from each of the performer’s lips but the shining star comes in the form of Jessie Buckley. Her understanding of Belvidera’s torment is carried by an astonishing emotional range that booms with a roaring feminist strength. The comic relief arrives with Pip Donaghy and Ayesha Antoine who, as Antonio and Aquilina respectively, have the audience in fits of laughter. Sadly, these moments are short-lived and the heightened drama of the piece becomes rather exhausting.
This re-imagining of a celebrated classic is full of talent but the balance between spectacle and engaging the audience’s sympathies is slightly off-kilter. Charlotte Westenra’s ambitious direction builds a solid wall of unrelenting drama and emotional tension but this crumbles when the audience spends several minutes travelling between scenes. Overall, Venice Preserv’d is enjoyable and the open air atmosphere works wonderfully as the sun sets along the riverbank.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Venice Preserv’d runs until 7 June 2014. Click here to book tickets