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
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.
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
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.
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Review - Botticelli In The Fire - Hampstead Theatre 2019