22 September 2020 (released)
18 September 2020
Apparently Leonarda da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli lived together in the court of the Cesare Borgia, the infamous ‘Prince’ of Machiavelli’s book for a brief period in 1502. The notion of this irresistible cast of characters under one roof was the inspiration behind ‘Renaissance’, a new play by Charles Ward, written almost entirely in verse. An exciting prospect in itself, possibly topped by the fact that this is the first ‘real-time’ play many of us have attended since lockdown began. Director Emma Butler has brought together a superb cast (including BATA and Olivier nominated Haydn Gwyn) which she herself said she would never have had access to in ‘normal times.’
There’s an Autumnal nip in the air as we gather in the walled garden of Stephen’s House in Finchley, huddling on our plastic garden chairs set neatly set a metre apart. In front of us is a small circular stage crowned in lights beneath a huge pine tree. ‘Why is everything so bland?’ sighs the Prince played by James Corrigan (an RSC regular), opening the drama with ostentatious ennui. After interminable months without culture or entertainment, he certainly spoke for much of the audience.
The central conceit is a simple one although the play, written mostly in dense verse with a knotty Shakespearean plot is anything but. Everyone wants to find freedom by re-inventing themselves; Leonardo da Vinci, already a star in the court has painter’s block so decides to go into politics, Borgia the Prince wants to be free to follow his instincts without being watched so pretends to be a court painter, granting Machiavelli (Nicholas Limm), who’s totally lost credibility to take on the role of Prince while he’s off having his fun. Cue disguises a-plenty, gentle gender-play and a sharp reminder of our responsibilities at the end.
I’m happy to say it’s not all about the men as Ward’s research discovered some equally fascinating but naturally lesser known, female characters of the time. Haydn Gwyn takes a star turn as she swoops in as the aristocratic art collector Isabella d’Este, determined to get her hands on another Leonardo da Vinci. Bethan Cullinane plays Borgia’s clever cross dressing sister Lucrezia and Caterina Sforza has a wry smile and maintains the upper hand despite being imprisoned.
Butler’s production is slick and apparently simple, neatly choreographed with the cast elegantly dressed in pastels, the actors maintaining the closest possible social distance as they reveal their frustrations through monologues and asides. It’s a play that’s all about the words and Ward certainly has a way with them. Luckily we’re told, the two actors who kiss on stage, are in the same ‘bubble’ off stage which solved that problem. Given that it’s a cast of six, there’s also no need to panic, if the short run is extended! Here’s hoping…