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Venice Preserved at The Swan Theatre - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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RSC version inspired by 1980 sci-fi films
It may have been written in the 17th Century but Venice Preserved has been updated and transported into a world of 1980's sci-fi for the latest production from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

Venice Preserved, RSC, Les Dennis, review
Civil unrest in Venice Preserved


Director Prasanna Puwanarajah has attempted a 'restoration noir' that is dark and edgy as it retells Thomas Otway's story of civil unrest in a city of sleazy, complacent senators and untrustworthy revolutionaries.

Caught between the two are young husband and wife Belvidera and Jaffeir, whose honourable and naive natures are at odds with everyone around them in this dystopian world. Will their love survive as they fall from one world to another? Especially after Jaffeir offers to help the revolutionaries and leaves his wife with them as a guarantee.

Venice Preserved, RSC, Les Dennis, review
A young couple caught between two opposing sides


Venice Preserved is a grim tale about a thwarted uprising in Venice that is showing at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until 7 September.

The play was created by Otway at a time when plots and thoughts of uprising were being snuffed out in a volatile Britain recovering after the execution of Charles I and Charles II Iater being restored to the throne.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of secret plots in underground sewers creates the air of menace needed for noir. It's also very stylised as a visually- stunning lovesong to 1980's retro-futurist cyberpunk movies like Terminator and Bladerunner, there's even a touch of Mad Max in the styling.

An electric guitarist hovers at the edge of stage strumming melancholy notes and a giant electronic screen adds a touch of tech with facial recognition scans in the rebels' hideout.

At other times, the screen becomes a huge neon sign for Aquilina's nightclub - the abode of Aquilina, the mistress of rebel soldier Pierre.

Venice Preserved, RSC, Les Dennis, review
Neon lights recreate the 1980's


At Aquilina's, this is where the magic happens on stage and when the production feels on firmer ground.

Natalie Dew plays nightclub owner Aquilina beautifully with a bubbling undercurrent of self-loathing and animosity for Antonio, the seedy politician she services through hilarious bondage scenes.

Translating Aquilina into a night club owner, with shoulder pads that wouldn't have looked out of place in TV drama Dynasty and more than a passing resemblance to Sean Young's famous character Rachel in Bladerunner, is a masterstroke. Teaming Dew up with actor John Hodgkinson as Antonio is even better.

Hodgkinson, renowned at the RSC for his strength at comedy, completely steals the show. Ridiculous one moment, prancing about in a leather cod piece, and sinister the next, abusing his political power.

Venice Preserved, RSC, Les Dennis, review
John Hodgkinson is excellent as Senator Antonio


There's a bubble of excitement from thrbaudiencr at all his scenes, but this drops off during other parts of the performance without him.

That's why this version of Venice Preserved is so frustrating. It waivers between brilliant scenes that are beautifully acted and crafted out to scenes that seem too long and stilted, slowing down the pace of the play.

The main problem for me was that I lost interest in the two leads of Belvidera and Jaffeir, played by Jodie McNee and Michael Grady-Hall. I felt their scenes together needed more movement and tension around the stage. Instead, they felt drawn out and whiney.

Venice Preserved, RSC, Les Dennis, review
Les Dennis makes a sound RSC debut


That said, there is plenty to like about this production, particularly the special effects and styling. There is also a fine RSC debut to enjoy from Les Dennis.

The popular TV presenter and actor takes on the dead-pan role of Belvidera's father, Senator Priuli, along with donning a hat and stubble to play a conspirator in other scenes.

These roles are far removed from his better known persona as a comic and presenter of Family Fortunes and he portrays them well. As Priuli especially, you feel as though the senator has the weight of regret on his shoulders of falling out with his daughter over Jaffeir.

This heavily stylised version of Venice Preserved takes you on a journey, but rather than Italy, it's to a dystopian land of 1980's fashion, haircuts and house music raves.

It's on the right track with its intentions but unfortunately stutters along the way.

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Why? See restoration noir on stage
When: Until September
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From 16
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