In The Fire
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2019
In the film The Third Man
there's a famous thirty-second speech delivered (and reputedly written) by
Orson Welles about the difference between Italy and Switzerland. (If you
don't know it, go to Youtube and ask for 'Orson Welles cuckoo clock
speech.” I'll wait.)
Are you back? I just saved
you two and a half hours at the Hampstead Theatre.
That's a bit unfair. Jordan
Tannahill's play is intermittently clever and entertaining, but its
premise is essentially the same as Welles's – that periods of civic and
moral chaos can also be (and may even be the prerequisite for) outbursts
of immense artistic creativity.
Tannahill's hero is the
painter Botticelli, though the playwright makes no real claim to historic
accuracy. His invented Botticelli is a pansexual hedonist reputed to have
slept with every man, woman, dog and tree in Florence.
Commissioned by Lorenzo de
Medici to do a portrait of Medici's wife, he is inspired, perhaps by Mrs
M's insistence that he overcome his preference for men to service her at
each of their sittings, to do it as a nude.
The result is Botticelli's
single most famous painting, of the naked Venus, though the play suggests
that the best parts of the painting were actually done by Botticelli's
assistant, a young lad named Leo from Vinci.
Angered by the evidence of
his cuckoldry, Lorenzo turns against Botticelli, attacking him through the
real love of the painter's life, Leonardo, and to save the boy Botticelli
destroys his canvases and renounces painting (in the process creating a
passable impromptu Jackson Pollock before our eyes).
Of course, little or none of
this actually happened, which playwright Tannahill openly admits by
creating a fantasy of Renaissance Florence in which people carry mobile
phones, dance at gay discos, appear on TV chat shows and enjoy peanut
(The anachronism gag actually
wears very thin very fast, and by the time Mrs Medici starts looking for
her car keys, you'll have lost interest.)
Some of the jokes work, some
of the inventions, however unlikely, are at least interesting, and if this
isn't how it actually happened, who cares?
The playwright's central
point, that cultural and personal amorality somehow go together with
extraordinary creativity, does get made – though, as I said, somewhat less
efficiently than Welles made it in The Third Man, and your mind may begin
to wander as the narrative wends its unhurried way to an ending.
The characters are all
written as single-dimensional if that, giving the actors far too little to
work with. Dickie Beau makes a convincing modern punk rocker as
Botticelli, but can't find much sense of the artist, and his
life-threatening passion for Leonardo seems tacked on to the character
late in the play, with no preparation.
Adetomiwa Edun's Lorenzo is a
mercurial despot with no core to his mood swings, and Hiran Abeysekera's
Leonardo isn't given any real character to play at all.
Clever as some of it is, too much of Botticelli In The Fire feels more like a bunch of potential ideas for a play than the finished play itself.
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Review - Botticelli In The Fire - Hampstead Theatre 2019