I was in the beautiful Midlands country town of Stratford-upon-Avon last weekend. As well as my journeys to see William Shakespeare’s family home; the family home of Anne Hathaway; the marital home of AnnWill (the Brangelina style moniker I have just bestowed upon the couple); the marital home of their daughter Judith; the resting place of the entire Shakespeare dynasty; the school room of Big Will; the nearby Warwick castle; I also went to the theatre. Well it was obvious that I would. When one visits the town associated with the greatest writer in the English language one really ought to make an effort.
By the banks of the river Avon (one of five rivers named such in England – not surprising considering that the word ‘avon’ is the Anglo-Saxon word for river; and Stratford is an Anglo-Saxon town) sits the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre – the 1,040 seat theatre which stages the works of Liam. At the side of this great building lies the Swan Theatre – the smaller 450 seat theatre that stages the works of William’s contemporaries. Sadly there was no production of a Shakespeare work on the weekend, but there was a choice of two Restoration plays in the Swan – the comedy ‘The Provoked Wife’ from 1697 by John Vanbrugh on the Friday night; or the tragedy ‘Venice Preserved’ by Thomas Otway on the Saturday evening. While the comedy would have been my preference, and the tickets were only £5 there was a catch. The only remaining tickets were individual standing ones. The play was three hours long. We decided to give that one a miss.
The kindly, bearded gentleman at the box office told us to return early on Saturday morning to ask for half-price standby tickets for ‘Venice Preserved’ on the Saturday night. We did just that, and acquired decent seats in the first gallery for our trouble.
The Swan Theatre has a deep thrust stage (one that extends into the audience on three sides) and has three levels of seating. The play is a tragedy from 1682 about love and Venetian politics. Jaffeir (Michael Grady-Hall) is an impoverished Venetian nobleman. He has secretly married Belvidera (Jodie McNee), the daughter of a senator named Priuli (Les Dennis), who has cut off her inheritance. Jaffeir’s friend Pierre (Stephen Fewell), a foreign soldier, stokes his resentment and encourages him into a plot against the Senate of Venice. Pierre is in a relationship with the courtesan Aquilina (Natalie Dew), whose most important client in the sleazy, sex-fiend senator Antonio (John Hodgkinson). Things go horribly wrong for them all.
The set and direction by Prasanna Puwanarajah are excellent, creating a threatening and atmospheric mood. The performance by the cast is stellar – by McNee in particular, where I loved the fact that she spoke the words in her regular Liverpudlian accent. Grady-Hall gives a strong performance of an unlikable character – who despite his protestations of love for Belvidera, prioritized his friendship with Pierre over her – to tragic consequence. The character of Antonio is hilarious and played with utter joy by Hodgkinson. He revels in the character’s grotesque sleaziness, to hysterical effect when dressed in rubber, while being humiliated on stage by his mistress Aquilina. Les Dennis was a surprise – I associate him with light entertainment. I never knew he was also an accomplished actor.
The play was reasonably accessible and I could just about keep my head above water in terms of following the plot – which is often a concern when watching centuries old works.
I may never have heard of ‘Venice Preserved’ had I not visited Stratford last weekend, and I can say with a certain degree of confidence that I will never again see a play by Thomas Otway, but my Saturday night theatrical excursion in the Swan Theatre, was an evening well spent.