Shakespeare created ‘the vastly fields of France’ in a cramped ‘cockpit’ and crammed within his ‘wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt’ all courtesy of his audience’s imagination. Playwright Jo Clifford and director Paul Miller equally rely on the sense of invention in this revival of Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre.
A spirited journey superbly acted.
This time we are transported to Spain where a frustrated Duke (Tim Delap) manages to make a connection between his wedding night impotence and the fact that the country is at peace, which is the fault of women. His mission, therefore, is to destroy that tranquility by embarking on a war to capture Venice. He is assisted, or perhaps more accurately hampered, in this endeavour by Quevedo (Christopher Logan), his resident poet, confidante and general assistant. Of more practical help is the servant Pablo (Remus Brooks) who tries to serve two masters and Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka), with whom he is love and who serves as maid and comforter to the Duchess (Florence Roberts). In two acts a series of bizarre escapades are played out on land and at sea in epic style. If it all seems far fetched be assured that it is based on historical events and characters blended with a considerable measure of artistic license.
The play was commissioned by Jenny Killick in 1985. She had just been appointed to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and wanted to break from the naturalism that had dominated its productions. It was written in the aftermath of the Falklands War, in Thatcherite Britain. It’s scenes of haughty language and grandiose prose often bring to mind the ‘scepter'd isle’ speech from Richard II. Here, however, it mocks the notions of imperialism and the exalted ambitions of leaders along with the overblown sense that many countries have of their own importance. As such it bears a sense of timelessness that applies to any age and can bear interpretation as individuals see fit. Trump and Brexit are as easily tied into frame as the Spanish Inquisition or the British Empire.
The production in the round fits neatly and intimately into the theatre, placing the audience in close proximity to the actors. Annie Rowe has done an excellent job in casting a team of performers who successfully complement each other while carving out their own delightful niches. Logan captures the essence of the ethereal poet constantly dragged down by the practicalities of serving an unappreciative master in scenes of wit and otherworldliness that are a delight. Delap convincingly bludgeons his way through the scenes when on his character’s high horse but also captures the frustrations of a man unsuited to domestic life. Roberts amusingly portrays how flippancy helps survival with such a husband along with the practical measures that need to be employed. Brooks makes a confident professional debut as he comically portrays a universal common man torn in all directions at the mercy of many. Fanyinka, meanwhile, in multiple roles, gives delight as she moves effortlessly around the space. Her speech is a joy to the ear and her often gentle unassuming presence brings calm amidst the many frantic scenes. Doubling up as the King and the Doge, David Verrey entertainingly displays two versions of the madness monarchs through a pair of perfect caricatures. The whole is accompanied by appropriate musical interludes courtesy of Dan Wheeler.
There are times in the second act when the plot seems to get a little lost in the underground passages of Venice and be all at sea with the ship, but overall it is a spirited journey superbly acted.