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FringeReview UK 2018

Losing Venice

Orange Tree Theatre in Association with Arts Council England

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Paul Miller’s direction moves pacily over Jess Curtis’ spare set with effects primarily in the second act where Jai Morjaria’s lighting comes into its own. Dan Wheeler performs Rodrigo and other pieces by composer Terry Davies, with the most glowing part of the set pieces undoubtedly Lizzie Douglas’ and Isabella Van Braeckel’s punk 17th century costumes.


Time again to praise the Orange Tree. Who else with their budget would risk a first revival of such an evanescent enchanter as Jo Clifford’s 1985 Losing Venice? And with such first-rate production values?


There’s the better-funded National and Royal Court; sometimes the Donmar and Almeida, as well as Southwark and Arcola who like the National and Court have more than one theatre each. The Orange Tree hurls everything at its one space for a few weeks alongside its Directors’ Festival, its first debut play (Mayfly) and still isn’t given a safety net from the Arts Council. There isn’t a braver or more welcoming theatre, or one with quite the crystalline intimacy of a top-notch production inches away. Only the Donmar approaches that. Yet despite all its initiatives the Orange Tree is dependant on Friends and project funding.


Losing Venice wowed everyone at its Edinburgh debut with its playful parable of a country losing an empire and groping for a role. Not just Dean Aitchison’s verdict on the UK post-1945 but post-Brexit too, and Clifford herself feels the work’s prescient: ‘perhaps it was just biding its time.’ Originally written in the wake of the Falklands adventure, subsequent UK involvements and struttings across the world stage can only reinforce the same futilities. Clifford’s fantasy reminds some of us of Peter Barnes, particularly the extraordinary 1974 The Bewitched about the Spanish Charles IV. Clifford’s more period light, less comically serious and linguistically rich, more playful too.


Paul Miller’s initially nimble direction works superbly in the first act where as directed only two benches squat on the bare stage, occasionally covered by sheets, as Jess Curtis leaves her set set-pieces for the second act. These include sail-sheets lowered from the galleries, sounds off including lapping water provided by actors just out of sight, a night-watch procession of conspirators using the cellarage – lowered through trap doors – and a ladder with descending priest. Jai Morjaria’s lighting comes into its own when sudden dark and tenebrous moments are required at a flick, with the hootings of owls.


Dan Wheeler performs on guitar fragments of Rodrigo (the 17th century-arrangements in Concerto for Two Gentleman) and other pieces by composer Terry Davies, with the most glowing part of the set pieces undoubtedly Lizzie Douglas’ and Isabella Van Braeckel’s punk 17th century costumes. Reflecting 1985 and 1618 in orange hair, leather triangular groin-grinders (not quite codpieces) and punk-ruffs, vivid dresses and dark male attire evoking both periods, they stream like torches across the stage.


Set ostensibly in 1618 – so the revival’s neat in more than one way – Losing Venice charts the attempts of the real 3rd Duke of Osuna to invade Venice, chronicled by his loyal poet Francisco de Quevedo. In real life Quevedo rivalled the contorted metaphoric Gongora, who’s been compared to Donne. Quevedo’s a bit like Ben Jonson, satiric, plain-spoken, occasional, full of one-liners; and we start with him in Christopher Logan’s soliloquy, but with a difference.


This Quevedo is anti-matter, or at least anti the physical, which is difficult if your servants Remus Brooks’ Pablo and Eleanor Fanyinka’s Maria are running and rutting all day. Quevedo’s too poor to command abstinence past his employment-time, and they’re very much off-duty.


Fanyinka has a capacity to light up anything with her quicksilver joyfulness, her wit turning on a doubloon and chiding Pablo to find more. Fanyinka’s the elderly Mrs Doge too. Fanyinka also takes over the role of Sister in Venice at very short notice from an indisposed actor. She’s virtually off the page here, inflecting everything again with a different warmth and pathos that – since there’s a parallel with Maria – works peculiarly well.


Brooks too is impressively earthy, a kind of Sancho Panza with happily a woman to rescue him from Logan’s Quevedo, which Logan invests with a querulous manner and underlying terror Despite later relation of massacres, Clifford determinedly keeps this a comedy though; we never quite apprehend them.


It’s rather essential since Tim Delap’s imperiously abrupt Duke is marrying the unfortunate Duchess as she’s already known, the reluctant Florence Roberts with a wedge of orange hair, later tamed. Luckily the Duke assents to faking the blood-on-sheet aftermath of virginity taken, and with the help of Maria, Roberts’ intellectual, unwilling wife approaches a hinterland.


Roberts exudes a nun-trained young woman fazed by sexuality, more in love with books and the kind of thing Quevedo perhaps has to offer. But they’re both too humanly remote from realising what they want.


Meanwhile Quevedo’s asked to provide a poem for each occasion which evaporates just as he finishes a sonnet to it. Logan’s brief joys, Quevedo’s propensity to wonder and cast-down dejection are lightly handled. No-one takes them very seriously, or indeed Quevedo himself at all. The playfulness of Clifford’s text, with picnics and sudden alarums as the Duke decides on something heroic after the King (David Verrey’s two-sticks-defiant King) assents to the invasion of Venice to replenish coffers. It’s like South Park with the U. S, invading Canada (horribly prescient now, when anything’s possible).


So the second-act adventure is both more spectacular visually, more episodic, less flowing and here does pitch its longeurs. The pace slows in the dark and Clifford’s text – unchanged since 1985 – is largely responsible for creating pauses; the material though, especially the climax is as good as the first half.


There’s a great start though with billowing sails and pirates forcing everyone to walk the plan (sploshes offstage) even after non-sonnets with dolphins. And Pablo’s through-line adventure works seamlessly.


The problem partly resides in the Duke’s recital of his conquests, and after a flurry of events, the introduction of heavier material, including the Sister’s soliloquy, though that works and darkens beautifully. The rapid introduction of new characters who exists for a puff and move off again slows the audience’s processing too. Especially as it’s often in the dark. It’s difficult to know how the original production worked though it clearly did.


Venice is here a strange country of dream-makers, the Sister (Fanyinka) washing Pablo’s feet, but freighted too with tragedy as tales are recounted. Roberts doubles as Priest, conducting everyone seraphically to their best selves, though with the Duke to the wrong horde of Militant-1980s conspirators after allowing him to see Verrey’s Doge is the very opposite of Verrey’s King. Mr Doge’s humanity, his gardening recalled to his wife Fanyinka’s Mrs Doge, warmly touching and vulnerable to us, enrages Delap’s Ducal machismo. For machismo is of course the play’s deconstructive heart, and the Duke’s appalling litany of massacre and enforcement. There’s a little of The Madness of George III in all this, but Clifford got there six years earlier.


Roberts’ Priest enjoys several speeches about the nature of Venetians, and Venice’s inevitable oblivion via the sea. The accidie and resignation reminds us perhaps of the elderly Italian in Catch-22. It might seem a cliché but it works beautifully here. As the priest concludes: ‘Crying is easy, Quevedo. Laughter requires a little more strength.’


The denouement and transformation of Quevedo’s and Pablo’s world-views aren’t of course shared by the implacable Duke, incapable of reconstruction, and merely banished, for the moment. ‘I have changed the world.’ The Priest’s retort ‘And do you like it any better?’ earns the Duke’s ‘That’s not the point. I have stamped my mark on the world.’ No more succinct summary of priapic and political engorgement exits.


The impact on their return leaves a different set of relationships and additions. There’s a gossamer warmth to this, and the conclusion’s richly dismissive and satisfying.


Fanyinka’s the outstanding actor here, but Brooks matches her in role, and Logan, Delap and Roberts – in her two roles – ground their characters believably, as does Verrey’s King and Doge, both excellent studies of repellent defiance and warm pathos. This is a brave play, with a uniformly excellent cast and creatives, really worth reviving. Miller needs to pick up the pace a little, but this is a play we need, and a production that honours it.