Botticeii In The Fire
Hampstead Theatre, 6 November 2019
Review by Emma Shane © November 2019
I realised this play was going to be quite adult. All the same I’m not sure I expected quite so much swearing, however it is contextually clearly artistically appropriate for the piece.
The play opens with Dicki Beau as Botticelli entering and telling the audience to switch their phones off, as well as explaining this is “his” ie Botticelli’s story. He delivers this in a voice that is of the stereotypically effeminate male. Thereby immediately giving us a suggestion that the character is probably gay, in fact Botticelli (at least according to this play) seems to have been bisexual. Next on stage is Hiran Abeysekera as Leonardo Da Vinci. For the purposes of this play at least Leonardo is Botticelli’s very talented young apprentice. Historically (as far as I can gather from the programme notes) it does not seem entirely clear whether Da Vinci was ever really apprenticed to Botticelli, but he was certainly working in Florence as an apprentice at around the right time, and moving in similar circles. We quickly realise that this play is a reimagining of Botticelli’s life and Renaissance Italy. So lots of deliberate anachronisms, such as mobile phones, and electronic amplification systems, as well as references to television and motor cars, which means that the use of colour blind casting is also entirely appropriate and fits in with the piece. These two or soon joined by Stefan Adegbola as Botticelli’s friend Poggio Di Chiusi
There is a balcony at the back of the stage, running the length of it, and various characters make their first appearances up there. These include Adetomiw Edun as Lorenzo De Medici and Sirine Saba as Clarice Orsini. It also includes Louise Gold as Madra Maria.
The plot largely involves Bottielli receiving a prize which includes a commission to paint a portrait of Clarice, which evolves into a nude portrait. The play contains a fair amount of quite explicate nudity, with at one time or another Dicki Beau, and, Sirine Saba at least being nude and “dot dot dot”. I think that also extended at one point to Hiran Abeysekera. It is of course Artistic nudity and appropriate to the plot. Meanwhile in the city of Florence there is an outbreak of “plague”, general civil unrest, and religious fervour. The latter led by Giroland Savonarola played by Howard Ward; who in this play goes from being an irritating street preacher to a television religious superstar. For much of the play I assumed the “plague” to refer to Bubonic Plague. However it could refer variously to Bubonic Plague, Typhoid Fever or Tuberculosis. Certainly events towards the end of the play suggest “Plague” actually means TB in this play,
At various moments during the first act, Louise Gold as Madra Maria (Botticelli’s mother), wanders on to deliver odd lines referring to Botticelli’s childhood. The first of these details how even as a baby he “played with himself” and the priest told her to tie his arms to the crib. Another, involves the young Sandro being upset and worried about the plague. She says “So I told him “only sinners get the plague””. I really wanted to laugh at this point. Mostly because I found myself reminded of a certain episode of Blackadder (Season One for you Blackadder fans the one where plague was mentioned in the pre-opening titles). Another moment involves a vivid description of one night when Sandro couldn’t sleep, So says Madra Maria “I made him a peanut butter sandwich as I knew that was his favourite”. She then describes him licking the knife, and illustrates this with her tongue, will Dickie Beau standing elsewhere on the stage also acts this out.
Botticelli seems caught between his desires for Clarice, and an apparent friendly with Lorenzo De Medici, the latter involves an extraordinary depiction on stage of a squash game, largely achieved with sound effects.
The Plague issue is obviously causing the civil unrest and fuelling the religious fervour. The implication is that the obvious concerns about the plague are encouraging people to follow the popularist religious rhetoric of Savonarola . Lorenzo De Medici seems unsure what to do. It is Clarice, who, coming across as a very strong powerful women suggests “Sewers”, and tells him he should be building sewers. It’s a powerful moment, and one where Sirine Saba truly commands the stage. There is another moment, a very short while later, when she shows great command, marching into a scene to dramatically demand her car keys.
The first act ends rather unclearly. Botticelli and Leonado are busy trying to get the painting finished (or at least into a somewhat decent state – lengthening the hair to cover the nude’s private parts). The civil unrest has caused something to happen. Someone Botticelli knows well seems to have been killed. He receives a large number of missed calls to his phone. But it’s not quite clear who was trying to call him. For much of the scene I was under the impression it was Clarice, and it was only near the start of the second act that I realised it was Poggio. I think that could have been made clearer.
Then we have a surreal moment, where a trolley, plinth call it what you will is pushed on, by four actors, clad in pink lederhosen, with fluorescent trainers, and masks (to supposedly hide which members of the company they are). Atop this contraption is Sirine Saba wearing body stocking as Venus in a pose that more or less replicates Botticelli’s painting. The four members of The Company are Stefan Adegbola, Adetomiwa Edun, Howard Ward and Louise Gold. Despite the masks it was pretty obvious who they were, especially Louise, what with her red hair, and also her being one of only two women in the company. Nevertheless, it was impressive to see just how well the two somewhat older members of the company, Howard Ward and Louise Gold fit so well into the general part of the company role in this scene. (Louise of course is very fit – she has to be, to do the kind of animatronic work she does on television).
The act finally concludes, with Louise, now dressed in her demure black garb as Madra Maria wandering on stage and reciting a list of artistic facts about the proportions of a man’s body. One wonders what a certain public school art master (himself a not-quitesuccessful-enough-portrait painter) a century ago would have made of his granddaughter delivering this speech.
The second act starts by having Lorenzo and Clarice visiting Botticelli’s studio to see the painting. At this point it became clear it was Poggio who was apparently killed in the uprising. Lorenzo seems at first to like the painting, at least until he realises that Clarice has been having an affair with Botticelli. One can’t help but be impressed by Sirine Saba’s acting here as well. In an act of revenge, Lorenxo has Leonardo arrested for sodomy and imprisoned in the palace toilet pits.
We came to the scene I found the least enjoyable, in which Botticelli basically goes crazy and trashes his studio, throwing paint brushes and things around. He also throws paint at that painting, defacing it. The scene is a bit scary, particularly if you happen to be in the front row. A person sitting next to me got hit by a flying paint brush! He finally rolls himself into blankets near the front of the stage, apparently asleep
If that scene had been the least enjoyable. The one which follows it makes up for that. Up till now I had kind of felt that while Louise Gold was good at the parts she was playing, she seemed a bit underused, given her talent and considerable capabilities. Now however, she comes into her own, as a powerful commanding actress. Entering Stage Right. She finds Botticelli asleep, probably drunk, on the floor. She strides purposefully across the stage, takes off her black cloth coat (she is wearing a black dress under it), she briefly exits stage left, returning with an enamel basin or water, which she promptly empties over Dicki Beau, as though to wake him up. She helps him off with his upper clothes, and asks “Have you pissed yourself again? you should have called.” She tells him to remove his trousers “Well take them off”. And goes and refills the basin. She returns and kneeling on the stage proceeds to wash Botticelli, as though this is a totally normal thing to be doing on stage in the middle of play. But then Louise Gold has a lot of experience at making the oddest things appear to be normal. While doing this she recounts some more anecdotes about Botticelli’s early life. She asks him if he remembers how as a teenager he used to bring all sorts of people home. (The implication here is that he was having sex with various people), and his mother wasn’t necessarily averse to this “I’ve given a few good Bxxx Jxxx myself” she says. But she asked the priest for advice. She informs us that Botticeli came out of the womb sucking his Cxxx. “I didn’t tell the priest that” she says. She finally explains powerfully to Sandro that just as she choose to stand by him (because while she loves God, she loves him more), now he must choose between his art and “the boy”. She puts out fresh clothing for Sandro, and tidies various bits away, before departing. It was a most surprising and extraordinary scene. But then one of the hall marks of Louise Gold’s career is that she’s always taking audiences’ by surprise. The only thing that isn’t a surprise is that she makes the most of her big moment as an actress.
The play continues, with Poggio turning up disguised as a nun, it seems he escaped the mob but is now on the run and wants to take Sandro with him. But Botticelli doesn’t want to go. Then Savonarola turns up at Botticelli’s studio, and there is a negotiation between Botticelli and Savonarola, in which they come up with the idea of a Bonfire of The Vanities. Botticelli claims he will burn all his paintings. The Venus one is spared, because it looks so hideous (partly covered in splattered paint) .
The next scene, has Dicki Beau as Botticelli, using Savanola’s portable microphone throwing the paintings apparently into the fire, but in fact the fire effects are centre stage and he throws the canvases to stage left of the flame effects.
There follows a finale scene in Botticelli’s studio, when Leonardo returns, he says to collect his rucksack, as it contains his passport, he is leaving. He also says he has the plague, and the coughing seems to suggest in this case the plague means TB perhaps. Dicki Beau then breaks the fourth wall to tell us that historians among you will know that Da Vinici walked about of Botticelli’s life forever, but it’s his play so they are going to end it how it should have ended. He offers him a peanut butter sandwich and they sit down and eat together.
All in all a strange play. Yes a filthy one, with all the swearing and nudity, however, that is entirely appropriate to the piece. It’s probably not something I would have seen without a reason. But it is nevertheless an interesting piece of art, with its parallel comments for modern times. I am glad to have seen it. I was particularly impressed by the strong performances of the two women in it. Sirine Saba and Louise Gold. Both deliver powerful performances. The whole Company act well as an ensemble. It becomes clear to me, that even those actors who remain clothed, clearly have to be comfortable with the material of this play, and clearly these actors are all appreciative of the artistic nature of the piece. I wonder how many of them come from artistic families as well?