Mark Ludmon reviews Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli In The Fire which is having its European premiere at the Hampstead Theatre London.
Botticelli in the Fire
Hampstead Theatre, London
Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli in the Fire comes with the tantalising promise of being a “hot-blooded queering of Renaissance Italy”, making its European premiere at Hampstead Theatre after winning acclaim in Canada. It re-imagines a key period in the life of the artist, Sandro Botticelli, when he destroyed much of his art in response to the religious fundamentalist Girolamo Savonarola who whipped up the mob against sodomy and the other licentious pleasures that were part of life in Florence under the rich Medici family.
Tannahill “queers” heteronormative history by presenting Botticelli as a voraciously polysexual man and depraved “party animal”, famed for his huge talent as he works on his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. His assistant is young newcomer Leonardo da Vinci and, while there is no evidence that the pair ever met in real life, here they are brought together by art and desire like a piece of gay Renaissance fan fiction. Sandro is under the protection of Florence’s leading statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici and his magnetically charming wife Clarice but, as Savonarola’s puritanical preachings hit home, “sodomites” like the artists and their friends are first in the firing line.
The story has plenty of contemporary resonances with a populist extremist stirring up hatred and violence against those who are different. Time itself is queerly anachronistic, with mobile phones, TV and other modern-day details disrupting the 15th-century setting. Thanks to director Blanche McIntyre and designer James Cotterill, there are flashes of brilliance, such as a fabulous appearance by Venus herself, but overall, it feels structurally flabby and thematically muddled.
Leading queer performance artist Dickie Beau is well cast as the louche Sandro, but the characters have little emotional depth. Moments of camp often strike a false note, feeling dated and more like stereotype than subversion. With its meta-theatrical form, this superficiality is fine at first but becomes a problem when the drama tries to engage us with questions over how much someone will sacrifice for the sake of another.
Sirine Saba stands out as the charismatic Clarice, more than a match for Adetomiwa Edun’s imperious Lorenzo. With Louise Gold as Sandro’s doting mum and Howard Ward as a pragmatic Savonarola, the play has a strong cast but fails to live up to its radical “hot-blooded” promise. Originally a one-act play, it may work better in a tighter form on a smaller stage but, despite its queer intentions, this ambitious production is ultimately disappointing.
Running to 23 November 2019