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The Theatreguide.London Review

Botticelli 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 butter sandwiches.

(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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Botticelli In The Fire - Hampstead Theatre 2019