THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
When you have no control of the pandemic’s twists and turns, the vagaries of English weather or the technical limitations of staging a play out of doors in a new venue, the optimism, ingenuity and sheer bravura needed to embark a project such as this has to be highly commended. Making a corner of this elegant garden ‘Covid-safe’ for actors, crew and audiences was no mean feat and using it to premiere a brand-new play at the same time was a daring endeavour.
Charles Ward who was one of the founding team at the excellent Park Theatre in Finsbury Park makes his writing debut here. He became intrigued by the fact that for a time in 1502 both Leonardo da Vinci (Akshay Sharan) and Niccolò Machiavelli (Nicholas Limm) lived in the court of the infamous ‘Prince’ of the Renaissance, Cesare Borgia (James Corrigan). The play explores the power relations between the three men and their tussles, amorous and otherwise, with the women in their lives. These are Cesare’s notorious sister Lucrezia (Hannah Morrish), the young ‘prize’ Caterina Sforza (Bethan Cullinane) and the imposing Grande Dame of art collecting Isabelle d’Este, played by West End star Haydn Gwynne.
Emma Butler’s production and Ward’s decision to write the play in rhyming couplets gives it all more than passing resemblance to the Branagh film of Much Ado. This cast, elegantly turned out in their summer linens all in the same pastel shades of beige and white, are delicately lit by a simple string of decorative light bulbs. It all adds up to a sultry night in Tuscany – if the reality was more a chilly one in Finchley.
The Shakespearean Comedy influence is there from the outset with Cesare, longing to escape the weight of ruling, asking Machiavelli to pretend to be him. This is the first of a series of disguises, mistaken identities and gender bending which drives the plot. Leonardo pretends to go into politics and Cesare then disguises himself as an artist in his own court.
The necessarily simple staging throws the focus very much on the words and the cast do deliver it beautifully, however too often the verse slides from overripe to unctuous. The lightness of tone and the easy asides make it hard for the power relations between these fascinating characters to gain any traction, so we’re not invested enough in them. The piece ends up a series of set piece ‘turns’.
Corrigan, with his off the shoulder pirate-shirt, brings a rakish energy to his comic set pieces which give it all a lift. Sharan impresses as Leonardo but isn’t given enough to play with. Haydn Gwynne, ever the mistress of comic timing, strikes a commanding presence and delivers some prize waspish put-downs with delight. Nicholas Limm’s voice, alarmingly, makes Machiavelli sound exactly like the Brexiteer politician Daniel Hannan, something the latter would no doubt find very flattering.
In the end the 90 minute piece wears its learning rather heavily and tries to do too much all at once. It’s a piece that either needs expanding or re-focusing. Ward however is blessed with such a top-class cast and a beautiful staging.
Audience seats were spaced for social distancing here, but the setting reveals great potential for future summer productions. Let’s hope these producers will be back and that their optimism and energy wins through.