We've had a pretty good run at the RSC so far this year with excellent performances of The Taming of the Shrew, The Provoked Wife, and As You Like It, so we were probably due something we weren't going to be so enthusiastic about - and this was it.
I did a bit of homework about Thomas Otway and Venice Preserved beforehand so had an idea of the plot and how influential the play had been in its day, along with some of the political context behind it. Which turned out to be a good thing because the more or less 80's cyberpunk inspired setting strips a lot of that context away.
The play opens with Jaffeir confronting his father in jaw, the senator Priuli. Priuli has not approved of his daughter, Belvidera marrying Jaffeir to the point that he's engineered their financial ruin. When Jaffeir realised he's going to get nowhere with Priuli he turns to his friend Pierre, and is quickly convinced by his talk of revolution.
Pierre seems to be motivated by the circumstances of his mistress having a transactional sexual relationship with another senator, Antonio. When he takes Jaffeir to meet with his co conspirators they demand that he hand over Belvidera as collateral. Later Belvidera reveals that the leader of this group, Renault, has tried to rape her leaving Jaffeir with seriously torn loyalties. Eventually he betrays the rebels, but it precipitates a mental breakdown for both him and Belvidera followed by a stage full of bodies.
This production chooses to draw out the submissive elements in Jaffeir's relationship with Pierre, which echos the kink that Antonio employs the courtesan, Aquilina, to satisfy for him. Jaffeir is a decidedly beta male in this scenario, his motivation for joining the rebels a mix of petulance concerning Priuli's actions and presumably hero worship for Pierre.
A contemporary audience would have understood this in terms of Catholic/Protestant struggles within the strict codes of male honour. In those terms Pierre and Jaffeir's decisions make sense - their personal grievances being the last step towards radicalisation that's presumably based on religious affiliation. The cyberpunk setting is stylish but it really didn't work for us, largely because it doesn't help explore the idea of male honour, and neglecting that robs the second half of the play of most of its tension.
It's hard to believe that this Jaffeir (who seems more incel than insurgent) wouldn't just clear off with Belvidera, it's also hard to see why Belvidera is so smitten with him (the audience consensus on the
way out seemed to be that she should have known she could do better). Nor is there the neccesary chemistry between Michael Grady-Hall and Stephen Fewell as Jaffeir and Pierre to make me believe these are friends who would die for each other.
Les Dennis as Priuli on the other hand was a revelation. He was totally convincing as the powerful man bent on pursuing a petty spite, and then the repentant father (although by now his low opinion of Jaffeir feels justified). Jodie McNee is a mesmerising Belvidera too, but the really memorable performances are John Hodgkinson as Antonio, and Natalie Dew as Aquilina.
Her disgust for the elderly lover she's obliged to entertain, and his enjoyment of that disgust, is masterly. Hodgkinson, squeezed into fetish ware raises easy laughs, but his obvious enjoyment of Aquilina's anger and disdain exemplifies the frustration of anyone on the receiving end of harassment. At least when she seems to snap at the end of the play it's all too easy to understand why.