Theatre in Wales

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National Youth Theatre of Wales- Botticelli's Bonfire , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , September 3, 2005
The World Premiere of Greg Cullen’s play by The National Youth Theatre Wales.

At first glance, the Medici, Renaissance politics and the machinations of corrupt officials wouldn’t seem like an entirely jolly affair, yet Cullen’s vivid tale affords fantastic opportunities of staging, and under the Direction of Debbie Seymour, makes excellent use of a passionate and committed ensemble cast. Dramatising the rise of the Dominican fundamentalist ‘Mad Monk’ Savonarola, the play examines the lives of people noble and ordinary, as Florence comes under his control, and the brutal aftermath.

Bringing together all of these strands is the central character, a down on his luck Niccolo Machiavelli (played by Gruffudd Glyn). Exiled from Florence in a humble farmyard with his wife and family, trying desperately to peddle his latest literary effort, ‘The Prince’, he gets swept up in a plot to recover Botticelli’s painting Primavera. The painting, presumed burnt, represents all the fundamentalists had hoped to suppress. Botticelli (Tom Morgan), now a blind, broken old man, is roped into help him, along with Machiavelli’s wise cracking servant Magdalena (Elain Llywd), who along with other hidden depths, recalls her life as a young girl, and how Savonarola rose to power.

Full credit has to go to the young cast who vividly evoke the masked joy of a Renaissance street carnival, and changing seamlessly to create what has to be the shows most visually stunning feat; the public display of Savonarola’s visions. Surrounded by his eerily white clad followers, this entire sequence of movement and chanting is worth the ticket price alone. Live musicians score the piece throughout, and voice as well as music is effectively integrated into the story telling process.

But more than just a dazzling spectacle, Botticelli’s Bonfire is humourous in a way that that the setting or subject matter doesn’t immediately suggest. In a play which firmly has it’s tongue in it’s cheek for parading an array of famous faces, one of the comedic highlights has to be the scene opening on two young lovers chasing each other playfully around the stage before, engaging in a passionate kiss. Enter a much chagrined Pope Alexander VI, who sighs, and says, ‘Cesare … leave your sister alone.’ The Pope of course being Rodrigo Borgia, and the two lovers, his children Cesare and Lucrezia.

Botticelli’s Bonfire paints a vivid picture, in which the hypocrisies of men try to dominate. As mentioned above, this could all prove to be an entirely depressing affair, but it is ultimately uplifting, showing how the pleasures in life, be it the beauty of art or of raising a family, belong to oneself and prevail over all. Supremely intelligent and witty, the best thing about Botticelli’s Bonfire has to be that it has heart.

Reviewed by: Melissa Dunne

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