Reading the precis of Jo Clifford’s Losing Venice, which she wrote back in the mid-80s, you can see what caught the Orange Tree’s attention: a fading empire propped up by leaders intoxicated on vanity and masculinity, each bristling with ambition, as they dine out on illusions of faded glory and global relevance.
Losing Venice may well be set in the Spanish Golden Age, but the Brexit parallels are obvious. Yet to reduce this playful, charming – and surprisingly layered – production into such a simplistic description would be to undermine its complexity for this is a sparkling, playful comedy that casts some very long dark shadows.
On the surface, we are swept up into the nuptials of a Spanish Duke (Tim Delap) and a Duchess (Florence Roberts). It’s an ill-suited match – he is a stupid warmonger, she a smart woman who’d rather read Dante’s Inferno on her wedding night than fulfil her conjugal duties. In fact, they are so poorly matched that the vacuous Duke decides he’d much rather take on a literal battle over Venice than the metaphorical one with his new wife in Madrid. And so, with the blessing of the rotten King (both literal and metaphorical), the Duke takes his manservant and his long-suffering poet off for war and violence overseas.
It’s all a jolly adventure – and very funny too – but this is a play that always slips elusively away from superficial explanations: The stupidity of the Duke’s need for war is an obvious shot at masculinity, but these moments are broken up with sudden strokes of violence that reveal the brutality of war; the position of the women in the Spanish Court obviously has patriarchal structures in its crosshairs, but when the men wash up on Venetian shores in a nunnery, are we being subtly asked to contrast this with the matriarchy of a women-only place?
And what should we make of the poet’s (Christopher Logan) monologues on the beauty of the world and the relationships that surround us? They seem wistful, at odds with the sharp, witty soundbites of the rest of the play. There is beauty wrapped up in Jo Clifford’s words, a seemingly earnest encouragement to get us to witness what is around us before it vanishes, transforms, and fades away from view. After all, like Venice, we will all sink into the sea sooner rather than later.
The cast, it must be said, are excellent. This is not that unexpected; director Paul Miller has a well-established skill for bringing out the best from his actors. However, Paul also engineers a wonderfully warm and intimate atmosphere to the production. The cast engage with the audience as much with each other, and obvious jokes sit perfectly alongside some fantastic deadpan delivery.
It could have been expected that the usual Orange Tree audience may not have been that comfortable with such an absurdist contemporary play, but such is the spirit in this show that the actors had us in the palms of their hands.
I really enjoyed Losing Venice, I find it hard to believe anyone could not – such a seductively timeless tale shot through with contemporary references and language. And all wrapped up in a production that brims with charm, comedy and joy.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to October 20, 2018.
Tickets from £25.
All production images by Helen Maybanks.