Watching the Hampstead’s new production of Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli in the Fire makes me think about context – which is to say that I didn’t love it and am frustrated by that.
It has an intriguing premise – it’s set in an imagined period in the life of the painter Sandro Botticelli, in which he comes up against censorship, personal peril for his queer sexuality, his own self-destructive impulse, and the threat of real love – told by a playwright who’s got a keen eye for the point at which politics shows through the skin of art like a bone. It should all make for something that really gets my gears turning.
Tannahill’s play is a confident drawing together of elements of Botticelli’s life, in the run up to the moment where he gave up his art to be burnt in the 1497 bonfires of the vanities, set against the backdrop of the accusations of sodomy levelled at Florentine artists. And there’s plenty to like: the abundance of pointy boots, a casually stylish way to bring across the Renaissance setting. The company’s choral chanting of the correct way to paint the proportions of the human body. A squash game stitching Polly Bennett’s movement direction neatly to Christopher Shutt’s sound design is one of the more charged sequences. It’s pleasing that as, Leonardo da Vinci, Hiran Abeysekera is dressed like a little trendy gay kid. I like the easily anachronistic setting and don’t mind phones existing loosely at the same time as characters referring to codexes or the danger of being burned on a pyre.
But other contemporary resonances are courted consciously, and slightly confusingly: the emphasis on “faggots” (being searched out, being burned, being what Botticelli and his friends are) implies an angry, politicised identity for some characters which, besides being ahistorical, there isn’t time for them to claim consistently throughout the play. It feels uneasy.
“There’s always a plague, there’s always a fire, and there’s always a priest who wants to throw things in it,” we’re told. It’s best not to spend too long trying to work out the way the plague of Renaissance Italy and the AIDS crisis resemble and don’t resemble each other. Or to dwell on the fact that the only gay men depicted here do indeed make their living as the “fleas” Savonarola accuses them of being, feeding from their corrupt elite patrons who rule the city. Recontextualising this and the Office of the Night can only comfortably go so far – Tannahill is aiming for the sense of things in more recent history, rather than direct analogues.
Tannahill’s play in the context of Blanche McIntyre’s production can be a slightly awkward meeting. James Cotterill’s design is smoothly efficient, but makes the Hampstead’s stage feel empty: a cavern of black brick, mostly as Botticelli’s studio, with high windows in the back behind which characters often stand, the backdrop shifting in colour to show us evening, or a sky lit up by smoke. The actors feel dwarfed by the space. We have to take on faith the filth lining the streets outside the studio, and the heat of the opening party. And for a play centred around a “voracious bottom” with abundant nudity, things feel unfortunately sexless.
I wonder if there’s a missed opportunity to let performance artist Dickie Beau, playing Botticelli, show us this other artist’s creative process in a more engaging, physical way. The monster canvas of The Birth of Venus that he works on with apprentice Leonardo is turned away from us. It’s translucent so we can see them through it, frowning and gesturing; the creative act is left largely alone.
We skip over seeing Botticelli really living this life of art and depravity, embedded in his city – instead we’re simply told he’s incorrigible. The story speeds past Poggio di Chiusi’s (Stefan Adegbola) selfless attempts to save other gay artists from being executed by the mob. We don’t see why Botticelli feels so drawn to Sirine Saba’s Clarice Orsini, as their relationship (and sex!) is largely played for laughs, undignified and shallow compared to Botticelli’s feelings for Leonardo, but then we don’t see why they like each other so much, either. Though Louise Gold is impressively stern as Botticelli’s mother, women don’t get much of a look in at all – this reconfiguring of history has little space for them. When Venus tells us she’d trade beauty for death, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise – it feels like a mark which needs to be hit.
I imagine another production of this play – perhaps with 40% less money, and perhaps elsewhere: does the set for Savonarola’s TV interview need to be flown in just for a five minute scene? We watch corpses pile up at one point at an alarmingly fast rate, dropped from the ceiling to the sound of echoing thuds. It’s goofy, rather than disturbing. I want things to feel more packed in, and dirtier. And it’s not as if I think all LGBT theatre should be underground and starved of money, to be any good, but I know I’d excuse more of what I don’t like so much in Botticelli in the Fire as rough and ready if we were somewhere else entirely.
A sequence presenting Venus surrounded by men gyrating to ‘Work Bitch’ should absolutely kill, but here, the Hampstead audience’s reaction is subdued. Laughs at gay in-jokes are quiet; everyone is well behaved, sometimes awkward. I like this choice of programming, but I want to like it more, and it doesn’t have an easy time of it here.
Botticelli in the Fire is on at Hampstead Theatre till 23rd November. More info here.