Theatre in Wales

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National Youth Theatre of Wales- Botticelli's Bonfire , Sherman Theatre Cardiff , September 16, 2005
This review first appeared in the Western Mail.....

For playwright Greg Cullen, the inextricable link between art and politics has already given him his two major large-scale successes – Frida and Diego, where the tempestuous relationship between painters Kahlo and Rivera ran in parallel with their revolutionary socialism, and An Informer’s Duty, where the Soviet composer Shoshtokovitch had to negotiate integrity within Stalinist repression.

But Cullen is no intellectual elitist, content to explore the world of high art for audiences of similarly privileged backgrounds, but a theatremaker who has worked mainly with young people – from his early days with Theatr Powys theatre-in-education to the award-winning Mid-Powys Youth Theatre and now, for the past three years, as artist director of the National Youth Theatre of Wales.

The young people with whom Cullen works don’t get it easy, because his plays are usually complex, ambitious, multi-layered, challenging, wordy and premised on ideological interrogation.

Botticelli’s Bonfire is no exception.

The characters, mainly real people, are the politicians and artists of Renaissance Florence, and they people the stage here in almost parodic fashion: the artists (usually gay or bisexual, but ’twas ever thus) Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and, of course, Botticelli, the Medicis and Borgias, the central figures of Nicholas Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola and other key figures in the murky world of Florentine society.

So it’s quite something to have this collection of artists and aristocracy, along with the ordinary folk who get mixed up in the religious and political powerbroking, appearing for often only seconds and still allowing a narrative to be followed – I counted getting on for two hundred characters in this huge sweeping epic.

The basic story is simple (well, simplish): Botticelli’s famous painting, The Primavera or Allegory of Spring, is destined to be burnt by the new rulers of Florence in an echo of the famous Bonfire of the Vanities (a phrase that has since gone into common usage) initiated by the charismatic religious leader Savonarola, and the out-of-favour political theorist Michiavelli is called out of retirement to retrieve it.

The quest, like all those familiar film adventures from Indiana Jones to Lord of the Rings (and wouldn’t Botticelli’s Bonfire make a great movie !), is full of twists and turns and flashbacks – and can all too easily lose the audience and maybe demands some kind of programme plot resume.

What’s more important is the essential question posed by all this, how important is art and the artist in an age of religious fundamentalism and political corruption, and it’s this that drives the production regardless of the labyrinthine detail and superfluity of characters.

Frankly, I don’t know how accurate Cullen’s script is in detail or in spirit and I’m not sure if his portrayals of Botticelli as a weak character, Machiavelli as a loveable rogue or Savonarola as fundamentalist fanatic are convincing. History tells us that Botticelli did indeed burn many of his so-called “pagan” paintings thanks to pressure from the radical Savonarola, who saw them (rightly) as subversive – but not the two most famous works, The Primavera or The Birth of Venus, which for me got conflated in this production. I seem to recall the script referred to The Primavera but all the play’s publicity and programme showed us The Birth of Venus, and indeed Venus does appear (less scantily clad, as with the other subjects, than in the actual paintings, parents will be pleased to note) in a stunning tableau, but maybe I missed something.

Of course, an extravaganza like this depends on a few strong performances within sound ensemble work, and guest director Debbie Seymour seems to get both from her sixty NYTW members, and although I found the movement work less impressive the design (set, costume and lighting) and staging was at times quite stunning.

There are always two issues about NYTW’s annual productions, issues that have bubbled away ever since the summer-school initiative started back in 1976: one revolves around the value to the young participants, the other about the quality of the finished product.

I can’t answer the first, but it certainly looked as if they got a lot out of it and, from overheard conversations in the bar, had been engaged by the debates and their contemporary relevance.

But as for what we, the audience, got out of the show, I for one am grateful that a fascinating and provocative a playwright as Greg Cullen has the opportunity to see large-scale epic theatre-of-ideas plays realised on a main stage to full houses.

And for all that a professional company might have persuaded the author to edit a little, both in dialogue (especially some of the jokes) and number of characters, this NYTW was still mightily impressive, with the stage set alight not with vanities but with commitment and excitement.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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