Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

Venice Preserv’d

The Daily Telegraph 13th April 1984, John Barber

Not one welcome gift but two. Having lately added the remarkable Michael Pennington to its strength, the National Theatre has now signed on Ian McKellan, a heroic actor unique in his generation.

These two splendid artists rise to the challenge of Thomas Otway’s “Venice Preserv’d” at the Lyttelton – a sensation in its day (1682) when conspiracies against Charles II made it painfully topical.

It tells of a plot against the tyrannical Venetian state, supported for a time by two lifelong friends. Mr McKellan – gaunt, raw-boned and defiantly recalcitrant – plays misanthropic Pierre, whose nerves have always been set jangling by the vileness of the world.

Mr Pennington is Jaffier, the gentler weaker soul, a man of tender feelings and wavering loyalties. He is persuaded by the wife he adores to reveal the plot to the Senate. When Pierre is arrested, he cuts his remorseful friend to the heart by denouncing him as a traitor. But Pierre forgives him before they both go to their death.

A bare synopsis can give no idea of a play which depends on verse so eloquent it often catches you by the throat and reminds you that Goldsmith ranked Otway next to Shakespeare.

Peter gill’s taut and thrilling production goes all out, unashamed, for the high-toned magnificence of the great speeches. This is not humdrum stuff but the drama of mighty oaths, curses to heaven, breast-knocking confessions, pitiful prayers and cries of “O my poor heart, when wilt thou break?”

Dramatically, it opposes senator to revolutionary, father to daughter, wife to husband and, above all, friend to friend. It is so well written and played that what might have been bombast leaves one exalted. It is as near grand opera as the theatre can get without music. If reality is not like this, so much the worse for reality!

The piece is grimly set, in a dark crumbling Venetian interior, by Alison Chitty – at once frightening and imposing, Jane Lapotaire, as Jaffier’s wife, reminds us of her aptitude for eloquent avowals of passion.  The notorious sado-masochist scene for a corrupt senator (Hugh Paddick) and his mistress (Stephanie Beacham) is the only tame episode in a revival which otherwise aims for the big bow-wow and comes off resoundingly well.

The Guardian 14th April 1984, Michael Billington

Watching a fringe production of Otway’s “Venice Preserv’d” two years ago, I recorded my astonishment at the play’s neglect by our major companies. So let me be the first to say that Peter Gill’s crepuscular new production at the Lyttelton is the most thrilling classic revival the National has given us in many a season, and that the central trio of performances by Michael Pennington, Ian McKellan, and Jane Lapotaire proves that the art of heroic acting is not dead.

What I like is Mr Gill’s downright, unapologetic approach. From the first moment, when the central doors of Alison Chitty’s brooding, ruin-arched set burst open, we are thrust into a world of forceful passion. And this seems to me entirely fitting for Otway, whose theme is betrayed friendship, ruined love and political corruption.

He shows us Jaffier and Pierre, two Venetian malcontents, harbouring personal grudges, joining a plot to kill the city’s Senate. But when Jaffier’s wife, Belvidera, is seduced by a fellow-conspirator, this Brutus-like waverer is spurred into revealing the coup to the Duke and Senators. What follows is a positive ecstasy of remorse and atonement, in which Jaffier comes to realise that his love for his shopped friend is even greater that that for his wife and child.

Otway’s 1681 verse tragedy may derive from Titus Oate’s Popish plot of three years earlier; but what makes it a dark masterpiece is its ability to present us with a series of agonising moral choices in bold, unashamed outline.  Seizing on this, Mr Gill calls forth a style of acting that recalls the Zoffany painting of Garrick and Mrs Cibber, but that at the same time acknowledges the play’s homo-erotic undertow.

Thus Michael Pennington’s superb Jaffier is from the start a man of intemperate passion in silken cuffs who is easily incited by Pierre to seek revenge for being reduced to penury by his father-in-law. But Mr Pennington saves his best until after the betrayal when he utters to his wife a rafter-shaking cry of “Where’s my friend, my friend, thou smiling mischief?” And it is no accident that in his death he falls on Pierre’s body in voluptuous union.

Ian McKellan’s Pierre is a no less striking creation: a single minded Cassius-liked destroyer inflamed by the idea of Venice, the Adriatic whore, being devoured by flame and avid for ruination. But although he presents us with a man who equates liberty with chaos, he also evokes Pierre’s personal valour and his hunger for reconciliation.

It is a fascinating performance, in that it is full of restrained bravura that leaves to Mr Pennington the hand-on-heart approach. And Jane Lapotaire’s Belvidera completes the triangle with a bold, forthright style that denotes tears, for instance, with the backs of hands stretched across the brow. Otway’s play calls for unbuttoned, emotional acting.

But Otway is cunning enough to give us evidence of the sexual corruption that vindicates the complots; and the famous scenes of perverse comedy came off excellently thanks to Hugh Paddick’s portrayal of a bent, grovelling masochistic Senator. Mr Paddick crawls on all four, barks like a dog, craves the whip and is thrown into ecstasy at the prospect of a blow from the foot of Stephanie Beacham’s hoity-toity mistress.

This is comic and pathetic at the same time; and is works because it is handled with the same frank, declaratory, fearless style that characterises Mr Gill’s whole approach. Out of a dark, sombre background emerges a production that is strong, clear, and ripe with the kind of passion which often seems a stranger to our stage.

Return to Venice Preserv’d