Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre
The European premiere of Botticelli in the Fire, directed by Blanche McIntyre, presents writer Jordan Tannahill’s vision of Renaissance culture, politics and artistic passion in a hybrid tale of the classic and the contemporary, qualified by what the author terms “queering history”. The story of Sandro Botticelli (Dickie Beau) – here a libidinous, chic, bi-sexual Brooklyn painter in a world of iPhones, art soirees and eroticism – is intertwined with 16th-century religious fanaticism, plagues and criminalised homosexuality.
Botticelli’s existentialist, hedonist carnal appetites extend precariously to his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici’s (Adetomiwa Edun) wife Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba) – the model for his epic The Birth of Venus – and to a young Leonardo da Vinci (Hiran Abeysekera), his assistant for this commission. A style of devil-may-care creative vanity, excess and boundless sexual desire – that has sometimes accompanied visual artists and rock musicians – here clashes with another extreme of societal oppression and intolerance.
Hints of misogynistic bias are included with the characterisation of the principal female roles: Botticelli’s mother’s Madonna-like purity contrasts with the calculating depravity of his adulterous creative muse Clarise, alluding to the notion of the female as two opposing extremes: virtuous saint or sinful libertine.
Beau’s iconic artist opens with a monologue spoken directly to the audience – immediately crossing Brecht’s famed “fourth wall” and replacing any convention of theatrical illusion with the surreal, yet remaining both universal and current.
The piece is well directed and acted; award-winner Dickie Beau is particularly compelling in his portrayal of a tortured, flawed genius. Innovative and intriguing, the set design (James Cotterill) and lighting (Johanna Town) provide an evocative, dramatic ambience for this provocative and thought-provoking show.
Particularly impressive is a beautifully choreographed (Polly Bennett) squash game played by Botticelli and Medici, accompanied by atmospheric sound (Christopher Shutt). The bathing of the wounded Botticelli by his mother is a poignant, painterly vignette, suggesting a childlike tenderness and vulnerability underlying the artist’s desire to devour life before it devours him.
The intriguing Botticelli in the Fire, a play about coming to terms with our dichotomies – including our clashes of emotions and desires, of freedom and tyranny and pursuit of power versus justice – provides food for thought, as well as entertainment and fun.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Botticelli in the Fire is at Hampstead Theatre from 18th October until 23rd November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.