Despite director Blanche McIntyre’s rich production values and a script enabling much visual sensation, this play is a bit of a one-dimensional and obvious scree. Whilst clearly hoping to pull out every iconoclastic stop on the organ, Jordan Tannahill’s two-act drama is unfortunately rather predictable and, even with some strong and interesting touches, still mainly comes across as a sulky rant from an immature voice rather than the stuff of revolution to which it clearly aspires.
Dickie Beau as Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, aka Sandro Botticelli, struts, staggers and suffers as the (initially) feted Renaissance genius with an ‘infinite capacity for pleasure’ but despite the actor’s abundant charisma as a performer and his courageous, confident and frequent exposure of his body, we see little depth to this character from Tannahill’s writing. It is asserted in dialogue that he is a great seducer of all sexes (when asked, ‘is it true you’ve had 1,000 lovers?’ He quips: ‘you must have an old source’) but when we encounter him naked and between the legs of The Birth of Venus model, Sirine Saba’s Clarice Orsini, (who is also the wife of all-powerful Florentine ruler and his art patron Lorenzo di Medici, played by Adetomiawa Edun) we behold a moment of slapstick shtick devoid of chemistry or eroticism. The conveniently gravity-defying presence of the painter’s drop-cloth feels like something from Austin Powers rather than a convenience for delivering what is nonetheless lop-sided modesty during a tepid and awkward sex scene on both sides. The artist’s famed orgiastic proclivities receive frequent verbal allusion but precious little to support the Dionysian abandon the descriptions evoke, even though the attractive cast are called upon to get their kit off on numerous occasions.
In selecting this work for her first season at The Hampstead, artistic director Roxana Silbert explains she is helping fulfil Jordan’s ‘important project of Queering History’. The ‘queering of’ anything usually refers to reinterpreting something in specific relation to sexual orientation or gender as well as sometimes positioning a work from an angle such that it seen differently than previously dominant and likely hetero-sexist perspectives. Whilst reinterpretation and shifting perspectives can be a hugely theatrical endeavour with enriching outcomes for its audience, this production suggests that for Botticelli in the Fire queering the art world of 15th century Florence is Tannahill’s primary mission and, moreover, one to which he feels no other conditions are attached. If he were writing a non-fiction tome of the epoch, then great – off you go and I’d certainly buy it. But as a dramatist, Tannahill must do more than he does here.
Whilst it is indeed fascinating to read art historian Professor Roger J Crum’s essay in the programme about the 17,000 individuals incriminated for sodomy in a city of 40,000 inhabitants over a period of 70 years and how criminalisation was relaxed and hardened as a valve for Medici’s social and political control, Tannahill, as a playwright, must meet a very different set of requirements. The author is still obliged to deliver a dramatic story with fully-drawn (even if revised or fictionalised) characters and some kind of coherent theatrical experience. Instead, despite some of the most interesting conflicts and dramatic opportunities in history, Tannahill gives us a rather thin and soapy plot that, ironically, relies on unchallenged clichés of the era and flat-as-canvas female characters with many of the men not much more textured.
The wilful anachronism is both wonderful and effective – and all the stronger thanks to outstanding scenic and lighting design from James Cotterill and Johanna Town. We are also treated to series of attractive high-concept tableaux which are enlivening and fun with some impressive movement work from Polly Bennett and sound design from Christopher Shutt. There is even a show-stopper of set-piece that is so precise in its choreography and sound-syncing that it might qualify as a ‘spoiler’ if I said anymore about it. There is indeed plenty of impressive stagecraft and spectacle that is worth checking out. Yet, none of these flourishes are enough to ensure the the world Tannahill and McIntrye want us to occupy for over two hours is palpable and true. And whilst the great theatrical moments are pleasing there are also some predictable ‘spot-it-a-mile-away’ image set-ups, such as a Pieta pose and peanut-butter-licking reprise, that are cringe-making in their obviousness. In failing to make the world credible – on any high concept and reimagined terms he chooses – Tannahill sadly doesn’t succeed in the essential task of queering this period of history nor the life-stories of Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci or Poggio Di Chiusi. We come away without a richer or more humanised experience of these lives and time because Tannahill hasn’t sufficiently nourished the dramatic muse to do its job effectively. I’m afraid placing a few queer cardboard cut-outs against the walls of Sistine Chapel alters the dominant historical perspective no more than wearing an ‘I went to the Uffizi and all I got was this stupid T-shirt’ garment is an act of political protest.
Whilst Botticelli in the Fire is visually rich, it is emotionally thin and a missed opportunity. Tannahill poses an intriguing question in his programme notes: ‘what really led Botticelli to submit his masterpieces to the Bonfire of the Vanities?’ If he had in fact written a play that did explore this question – with depth and feeling triumphing over gimmick and mannerism – through a queer lens, he might have also produced a masterpiece. As a writer, he can turn a phrase and draw laughs so I wouldn’t write this playwright off entirely. But, instead, despite valiant direction and a world-class creative team, and the stalwart efforts of charismatic and capable actors, in this work, the author has done little to offer anything new to our understanding of this world or feelings for its inhabitants. With eye-candy aplenty, Botticelli in the Fire may ignite the odd spark but doesn’t burn down the house.
Review by Mary Beer
Playboy Sandro Botticelli has it all: talent, fame, good looks. He also has the ear – and the wife – of Lorenzo de Medici, as well as the Renaissance’s hottest young apprentice, Leonardo.
But whilst at work on his breakthrough commission, ‘The Birth of Venus’, Botticelli’s devotion to pleasure and beauty is put to the ultimate test. As plague sweeps through the city, the charismatic friar Girolamo Savonarola starts to stoke the fires of dissent against the liberal elite. Botticelli finds the life he knows breaking terrifyingly apart, forcing him to choose between love and survival.
Jordan Tannahill’s hot-blooded queering of Renaissance Italy questions how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice when society comes off the rails.
Botticelli in the Fire makes its European premiere at Hampstead Theatre. Tannahill’s other plays include Sunday in Sodom and Declarations.
Blanche McIntyre makes her highly anticipated Hampstead debut following Tartuffe (National Theatre), The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare’s Globe) and The Writer (Almeida).
Award-winning actor and performance artist Dickie Beau (Bohemian Rhapsody and Re-Member Me) stars as Sandro Botticelli. He is joined by Hiran Abeysekera, Stefan Adegbola, Adetomiwa Edun, Louise Gold, Sirine Saba & Howard Ward.
Age Rating: 16+
A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE EUROPEAN PREMIERE
BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE
BY JORDAN TANNAHILL
DIRECTED BY BLANCHE MCINTYRE
Running time: 2 HOURS 30 MINUTES INCLUDING AN INTERVAL
18 OCT – 23 NOV 2019